for National Geographic News
Raw Video: Brain-Controlled Wheelchair in Action
It may not look like much at first glance, but researchers in Japan have pulled off a Jedi mind trick of sorts for directing electric wheelchairs.
Carmaker Toyota and research lab RIKEN have created a wheelchair that can be controlled by thought, perhaps heralding improved mobility for the severely disabled and elderly.
The device scans brain waves through sensors in a cap. In 125 thousandths of a second, the brain-controlled wheelchair can turn a thought into a command to turn the chair left or right or to move it forward. To stop, however, the user must puff out his or her cheek, activating a sensor placed there.
(Also see "Monkeys' Brains Operate Robotic Arm.")
Said to be about 95 percent accurate, the wheelchair improves on the speed and precision of previous brain-machine interfaces, according to results released June 29.
To best pilot the wheelchair, don't try too hard, suggested RIKEN scientist Andrzej Cichocki, leader of the project.
"It works best if you imagine playing the piano with either hand while turning the wheelchair or, for instance, jogging, to [make the chair] move forward," Cichocki said. "After two to four weeks of training, the accuracy is nearly perfect and it becomes effortless."
There are currently no plans to put the brain-controlled wheelchair into production, as tests are still in the preliminary phases, he added. For example, the machine has only been tried with relatively young, healthy subjects so far.
But that doesn't mean the researcher is sitting still.
Cichocki wants to reduce the training time for new users and improve the software so that it will be able to, for instance, sense imagined letters to spell out words as a communication aid.
How about driving a car? "No," he laughed, "but maybe it could change the radio station."
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES