Researchers in Japan have developed a brain-machine interface (BMI) system that allows for control of a wheelchair using thought.
The system processes brain thought patterns and can turn them into left, right and forward movements of the wheelchair with a delay as short as one-thousandth of a second. That's a vast improvement over other systems that can take as long as several seconds to analyze and react to the user's thoughts.
It was developed by scientists at the BSI-Toyota Collaboration Center, a research and development center established in 2007 by Japanese government-related research unit RIKEN, Toyota Motor, Toyota Central R&D Labs and Genesis Research Institute.
The system measures the electrical activity in a person's brain using electroencephalography (EEG) data gathered from five sensors above the areas of the brain that handle motor movement. It seeks to interpret the measurements to achieve control of the wheelchair.
It can also adapt to a particular user's thought patterns to improve accuracy to as high as 95 percent, the researchers said. Training on the system for 3 hours a day for a week is enough to have it tuned in to a user's motor-control thought patterns.
In a video released of the experiments a researcher is shown navigating a wheelchair left and right between six chairs in a room using the technology. A laptop computer mounted on the wheelchair is all that's needed to interpret the researcher's thought patterns.
To perform an emergency stop, the researcher just had to puff out his cheek: a sensor mounted there detected the movement and brought the wheelchair to a halt.
The group says plans to use the technology in a range of applications are already under way. First uses will likely center on the fields of medicine and nursing care management with the BMI interface decoding brain waves related to imaginary hand and foot control.
But researchers are confident that they can extend its use to detection of brain waves generated by various mental states and emotions with further research.
Earlier this year researchers at Honda Motor reported success in development of a BMI system that allows a person to control a robot through thought alone. The system allows a researcher to think one of several predefined movements, such as the robot lifting its right arm, and hopefully have the robot follow through with the same action. Honda said its system achieves a 90 percent success rate.
Japanese car makers have built-up expertise in robotics from their development of highly automated production lines, and have been seeking to channel some of this knowledge into humanoid robots. Japan faces a rapidly aging society and home-help robots are seen as a potential answer to an anticipated shortage of health care workers in the years ahead.