Out of touch: manual controllers face competition from hands-free interfaces
The mouse and keyboard have been around for 50 and 140 yrs respectively – offering fast typing and precision cursor clicks at your fingertips, they have become the essential office tool. But outside the office, cutting-edge computer interfaces are changing our gaming and social lives. Xbox Kinect became the fastest selling electronics device when it went on sale two years ago – its motion sensing technology makes for a more intuitive, easy-access interface than the games controller, which explains its broad appeal. New interfaces are also revolutionising the mobile phone industry. Touch keys are out, touch screens are in; and with iphone 4S, the focus is on voice control commands thanks to Siri. What’s next…thought control?
In fact, thought-controlled technology already exists in the form of thought-controlled wheelchairs and monkeys controlling robotic limbs and there is huge potential for expansion of thought-controlled applications for disability assistance. The technology represents the ‘brain-computer interface’ which uses our brain’s physiology. Nerve cells communicate via electrical impulses: when a nerve cell fires, most of the impulse passes onto a neighbouring nerve cell, but electrical leakage means that some of the signal escapes, making detection possible. Brain-computer interfaces detect and interpret electrical signals, and because the different thoughts and emotions that we experience are associated with different arrays of electrical impulses, a computer that can learn what these different signals mean could potentially read our minds. In practice, signals are detected using electroencephalography or EEG – electrodes are placed in different regions on the scalp and pick up the electrical signals from different regions of the brain.
This has immense potential to benefit the lives of the severely disabled. With the help of a brain-computer interface, ‘locked-in’ patients who are paralysed except for eye movements could control a wheelchair, create a message or even operate a robot. This possibility is becoming a reality thanks to technologies such as ‘BrainAble’ and ‘BrainGate’. Although helping the disabled has been the driving force for brain control interfaces, the technology already has more frivolous applications. For example, a ‘mind-reading’ gaming headset is already on the market. The ‘neuroheadset’ allows the player to control basic on-screen movements such as push/pull and lift/drop using thought alone. The headset also detects facial expressions using motion-sensing technology, which is used to project the player’s emotions onto their on-screen character.
Imagine where the technology could take us: an ipod that could shuffle to different tunes according to what mood your headset picks up from your neural signals. And how about a smartphone operated by thought commands. Rather than talking aloud to your phone as with iphone 4S (“what’s the weather like in London” etc.), which can be rude or embarrassing in some contexts, you could find out more discreetly using thought commands. A rival technology hoping to offer smarter more discreet information access is Google’s augmented reality glasses. Location-specific information would be projected onto the lenses, for example, warning the user of tube disruption as they approach a subway entrance.
Let’s not get carried away – there’s a reason the gaming character could only carry out simple actions. By the time the neural signals have reached a headset they have already had to pass through quite a lot of bone and tissue and are therefore weakened and distorted. For disabled patients, electrodes can be surgically inserted into/on the surface of the brain to get a clearer signal, but few gamers would go that far for their hobby. It’s also unlikely that an external headset could be used to achieve accurate cursor placement and for this reason, the mouse is not likely to be rivalled by brain-controlled cursors any time soon. On the other hand, a thought-controlled cursor has been invented using electrodes placed on the brain surface rather than into the brain tissue. Once brain-computer interfaces are commercially available, they could have real potential to help paralysed patients.