There is an overall trend in IT, and in the way business is done. Speed is a feature, and people have less and less tolerance to delays. Everything is faster and more powerful. I am not telling you anything new at this point, but there is a chance that things could reach a whole new level in the next few decades.
What happens when we want to do something? We first think about it.
Everything else between our thoughts and the action being done is about using the right tools, following the correct procedure, using the right machines, and using device peripherals such as mouse, keyboard, etc. to reach the final state we had in mind from the beginning. In the end, there is a lot of energy and time spent on things that are not directly related to what we specifically want to do. We could name that “background noise actions”.
In this article I will give some examples of how technology is being applied to simplify our lives – entirely removing some of these “background noise actions”. I also made a proof of concept to demonstrate this.
I think therefore I create an electric signal
Let’s take a concrete example. I want to make a presentation, send a message or change the camera position in a 3D environment. I will have a representation in my brain of what I want. In the case of a presentation, I am picturing my nice company logo at the bottom and the bold title with my favorite font. This visual representation (or just thought) comes from neurons and areas of the brain being activated, with electricity.
Extract from the TED video by Henry Markram
A thought creates specific electric signals / patterns emitted from my brain. In the end, the brain could be seen as a highly complex electric circuit, and knowing what we are thinking about is a matter of signal processing.
So, how can we detect a thought’s electric signal?
Luckily enough, a lot of our thoughts occur in the cortex, the peripheral area of the brain that is the closest to our skin, so the easiest to detect. For more accuracy some technology is using chips implanted directly into the brain to have a better signal, but this article focuses on what could be used by the masses in the near and more distant future, and I don’t think people would want or accept a chip in their brain, which also raises health, security and ethical issues.
Today there are a variety of existing devices to read brainwaves or emotions. They range from science-lab looking hardware to fancy headbands. Below are a few examples:
If interested, you can find more devices on that page
What is the current state of the brainwaves-reader technology?
Depending on the devices, the accuracy and the type of things you can detect vary.
The most affordable ones focus on emotions (fear, happiness), state of mind (focused, relaxed) and other simple things, for example when you blink your eyes.
Other ones, such as the Emotiv EPOC, can detect a set of specific thoughts that you have to tune beforehand. Indeed if a person “A” thinks of the action “Zoom In” or “Rotate Left” for example, he would very likely to have a different representation than person “B” for the same thing. So there is a tuning process: you select what you will think of, and while you are doing so the system learns about your specific representation. The next time you think about the same action, the software and the signal processing technology will be able to detect that you are thinking about the same action.
The emotions-based technologies and many other technologies do not require tuning, but rather a training to get better results.
Today we can already have very interesting usages examples for those technologies
- EEG Cap - A mind-controlled flying robot (AR Drone)
- EEG Cap - A thought-controlled weelchair in Japan
- Neurosky EPOC - A thought and emotion-controlled videogame
A sample brain-controlled mobile application
I developed a simple proof of concept for Android that leveraged both the Mindset Mobile device and the SAP Visual Enterprise Viewer technology (which allows, among other things, rapid consumption of 3D models and animations)
When I am focused, the camera zooms in, and when I am more relaxed it zooms out. When I blink my eyes 2 times in a row, the rendering plays the next step in a 3D procedure.
What can we expect next?
At the moment, only a handful of people are really benefiting from using brainwave-reader technologies. For paralysed people, this is a life-changing technology that bring a lot of hope. For most of us, however, the look and feel of those devices is still a barrier. Some are relatively big or heavy, it takes time to put them on, and they make us look rather strange. In many cases, it would not be as efficient as a more traditional user-interface such as a mouse or keyboard.
But the technology is incredibly promising. As devices get better, in terms of look and feel, accuracy and lag, we can expect user-interface breakthroughs. The fact a device can, in theory, detect what you want and when you want it is incredible. Imagine the potential boost in our productivity and the amazing opportunities for totally new scenarios.
In fact, there are already a few use cases where reading brainwaves produced a big leap forward relevant for everyone. When driving a car, a brainwave device can now detect that you want to brake even before you move your foot, helping you avoid an accident. There is still a long way to go to, but the path is exciting and full of promise. Stay tuned for more developments on how this technology will continue to help make the world run better.
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