We’ll still have to wait a few years to mind-meld with our Camrys, but researchers at Toyota have unveiled an advanced brain sensing system that controls the movement of a wheelchair by reading a user’s thoughts alone. By processing patterns in brain waves, the system can propel a wheelchair forward, as well as make turns, with virtually no discernable delay between thought and movement.
Developed by researchers at BSI-Toyota Collaboration Center, the brain machine interface technology can return a response from a thought stimulus in just 125 milliseconds, whole seconds faster than existing technology, in effect creating real-time responsiveness. Five electroencephalography sensors stationed above the regions of the brain that deal with motor movement interpret patterns in the signals generated by the user. Further, the software interpreting the signals adapts to a particular user’s patterns of thinking, achieving 95% accuracy after just one week of three-hour training sessions.
The potential applications for BMI technology extend far beyond the wheelchair, but Toyota’s immediate focus will be to help those with mobility issues regain their freedom of movement, as well as to improve nursing care for the elderly. In that pursuit, Toyota is far from alone, as an aging population has Japan forecasting a shortage of health-care workers in the future. Rival automaker Honda is experimenting with a similar technology that allows its Asimo robot to be manipulated via brain signals, the idea being that humanoid robots could replace home care nurses in coming years.
The technology could also revolutionize prosthetics at an important time for that field, as more and more soldiers return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in need of prosthesis. Segway inventor Dean Kamen’s DEKA Labs has developed a highly advanced prosthetic arm that responds to muscle commands in the remaining tissue of an amputated limb. BMI technology could bridge the link between brain and prosthesis, eliminating the lengthy rehabilitation process and restoring real time use of the limb.
As for commercial applications, the sky is the limit, though no one has announced any plans to roll the technology into a product for sale any time soon. Toyota plans to explore the technology more thoroughly first, tapping not only motor signals, but also brain waves tied to emotions and other mental states.