Brain computer interface technology: You can do what?

Technology is emerging that uses brainwaves to control PCs and handhelds, but it appears that the technologists, again, are way ahead of the public.

Reactions to the new brain computer interface (BCI) headsets announced recently by Emotiv Systems Inc. and NeuroSky Inc. ranged form "What in the world?" to "Ugh, sounds like Big Brother."

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, I  by chance saw a demonstration of an alpha version of Emotiv's EPOC headset.  I wrote up a story, part of it indicating how Emotiv is an IBM partner and both see potential for long-term applications beyond gaming.

After the article appeared, several people actually asked me if the Emotiv demo could have somehow been staged or faked.  It seemed so unlikely that a person's thoughts could be monitored with sensors and sent wirelessly to a PC to make something happen there, some said.  In one example in the demonstration, a user's thoughts made a ball on a PC display spin and then to  move up and down.

"No, that's not what was really happening, Matt," my wife told me later.  "You were conned.  How do you know it wasn't rehearsed ahead of your being there?"

A very savvy senior person in a networking company dissected the demonstration with me, to make sure the demonstration wasn't rehearsed ahead of time, like a stage appearance by The Amazing Kreskin at a late-night show in Vegas. 

Several people told me they didn't want technology like that, even if it is possible.  Too scary.  Too different, they said.

So, I admit, maybe this is one of those technologies that is making a leap that's too big, at least for some. 

It has been nearly two months since I saw the demonstration. Even now, when somebody casually asks me, "What's the cool coming technology?" I mention the potential of BCI.

Imagine, if you could train a cell phone or PC with this software to interpret your thoughts, there really could be some amazing potential outcomes.  While Microsoft Corp.has been advertising speech commands with Sync in Ford Motor Co. vehicles, this neuroheadset has the potential for a user to skip over the voice command entirely.  Apple Inc.'s iPhone has many amazing new features, including its touch screen, but brain control of a phone would obviate the need for  touch and speech commands, at least for basic functions.

The potential for the disabled seems astounding, especially for somebody with multiple disabilities.  Even a stroke victim could potentially train this software to interpret the electric signals of his or her brain.  When a person experiences a stroke, therapists work to "rewire" the brain to make speech and movement happen.  This technology could be trained to interpret the rewired path as the electrical signal intended to result in the desired outcome. 

Of course, the headsets have to work in the field, and NeuroSky says it has been testing its technology for years to iron out the bugs.  Over time, headsets might become sleeker and nearly invisible, or even implanted.

Still, given the concerns about Big Brother and mind control, is this is a technology ahead its time? And how long will it be before it goes well beyond the high level gaming audience that is ready and willing to try out new stuff?  This could one of those cases where consumer-driven technology has an impact far beyond consumers.

 We should all stay tuned in.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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