Posey's Tips & Tricks

Controlling Digital Devices with Your Mind

What was once a science fiction dream is now one step closer to being a reality.

Like so many other IT pros, I started out as a hobbyist. When I was a kid, I would spend countless hours writing programs on my old Radio Shack Color Computer, or CoCo. One of the things that was so unique about that period of time was that there were magazines filled with pages and pages of source code that you could type in to make your computer do all sorts of cool things. Of course those magazines were also chocked full of ads. And while many of the ads were forgettable, others really made me stop and wonder.

One such ad, which you can see in Figure 1, hinted at the idea that you could control your computer using the power of your mind. Using your brain to control a computer would be a tall order even by today's standards, but this particular ad appeared in the February 1988 issue of Rainbow Magazine.

[Click on image for larger view.] Figure 1. The idea of controlling a computer with your mind has been around for a long time.

I never purchased the product described in the ad, so I have no way of knowing whether or not it did what it was supposed to. Even so, I am guessing that controlling a PC with your mind (not just using galvanic response to measure stress) was well beyond the capabilities of 1980s technology.

In recent years, the idea of controlling digital devices using nothing but your mind has made something of a comeback. In fact, a lot of progress has been made in that area lately.

Just to be clear, technology has not yet progressed to the point where a computer can read your mind. To date, nobody has created a solution that will allow you to compose an email message or a text message by thinking the words. Even so, a company called Synchron recently proved that is was possible for a research subject to control an iPad using their brain.

Again, the technology's capabilities are super limited at this point, but here is a rundown of how it works. The process starts with a surgeon implanting a device called a stentrode. The stentrode is placed into the brain's motor cortex. Rather than engaging in full blown neurosurgery, the device is placed in the jugular vein using a technique similar to that used to treat strokes . The procedure is considered to be minimally invasive.

As it stands right now, the device is trained to recognize the neurological signals associated with the tapping of ones foot. Hence, if someone who has been implanted with the device thinks about tapping their foot, that thought is treated as a screen tap. There is presumably also a way for a user to control where on the screen they are tapping, because an ALS patient who had been outfitted with the device was able to use it to type the word "great" on an iPad when asked how he was doing.

Like any newly developed technology, Synchron's devices have a long way to go before they are ready for mass market use. Even so, the devices have enormous potential for helping patients who are paralyzed or who suffer from other neurological conditions to more easily interact with the world around them.

Consider for a moment some of the things that may eventually be possible if the technology is perfected. At a minimum, the technology may help seriously disabled patients to communicate with others through text or through a text to speech engine. However, the possibilities do not end there.

How many consumer-grade smart appliances and smart devices are designed to interact with iOS or Android? In my own home, I can use a mobile device to turn lights on or off, lock doors, adjust the temperature and that sort of thing. Every bit of that and much more can be done using an iPad. As such, it isn't difficult to imagine a seriously disabled patient who can control a touch screen device using neurological signals being able to regain some basic control over their home.

The thing that makes this technology so promising is that even though the stentrode is proprietary, it has been designed to work with commodity, consumer-grade hardware (in this case, an iPad). As such, anything that can be done with an iPad is presumably within the realm of possibility for those who have been outfitted with the stentrode.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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