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Goodbye fingertip, hello telekinesis: thought-controlled interfaces are on the way

By Evan Wade / November 11, 2013


Powers once reserved for comic book characters and street magicians are quickly becoming a reality, thanks to recent advances in brainwave-reading technology. Gadgets like InteraXon’s $269, “brain-sensing” headband, Muse, which recently raised over $280,000 on crowd-funding platform Indiegogo, are trying to change the way we think about human-computer interaction.

The potential applications are a lot more useful than you might think. While we’re still in the early stages of the brainwave revolution, the technology’s potential is certainly intriguing. Here’s a look at what’s available now and what we can expect in the future.

The force is strong with you

You don’t have to be a big Star Wars fan to imagine how cool being a Jedi would be. For proof, look no further than the Force Trainer, by toymaker Uncle Milton. This gadget saw an insane amount of coverage online back in 2009 when it challenged users to move a ball up and down with their brains. This test of “force” had people from all walks of life imitating Luke Skywalker, but there’s a logical explanation behind this mental phenomenon.

The secret is an EEG-sensing headband, which picks up on the increased brain activity that occurs when the user focuses. The brain waves are then detected by a sensor on a small fan hidden in the toy’s base. It’s a simple, entertaining application of mind-reading technology, but it helps describe the function of more complex gadgets like Muse.

One Quartz article describes the tech as “binary”: Thinking hard about anything triggers the headband, which then can be used to control devices with a simple on-off operation, like a fan or light bulb. Other gadgets utilize this basic idea in a large way. Emotiv Research, for example, uses similar technology to slow a car when it senses the driver isn’t paying attention.

Most products connected to this technology have served a single-purpose, but Muse’s goals are entirely different. By providing the hardware and leaving the other stuff to enterprising developers, Muse is testing the limits of mind-reading applications through crowdsourcing. If you’re a developer, or even a general technology fan, that’s where things truly get exciting.

Healthy beginnings

Muse’s first focus will be on enhancing our well being. Quartz notes that the device “will only have health and wellness apps” at launch, which should appeal to a broad number of fitness conscious consumers. The included “Integrated Brain Health System,” according to Muse’s Indiegogo page, will help users reduce stress, build better brain habits and improve memory and concentration through a number of games and brain-training exercises.

The data it collects could also potentially be used by healthcare providers and other professionals in the medical industry, helping them develop personalized care plans based on statistical readings. That could make technology like Muse infinitely useful in the burgeoning field of mobile health (or mHealth), a field that already makes use of futuristic technology like ingestible sensors to gain insight into patients’ day-to-day lives.

In either case, the technology’s precursors have proven effective. According to a recent Science-Based Medicine update, so called “brain training” software and websites have already improved users’ ability to accomplish given tasks. Ingestible sensors are also on their way to receiving full FDA approval, making them a viable means for healthcare professionals to monitor vital user statistics from a remote location. Whether it augments existing technology or does its own thing, there’s a definite place for brainwave-reading headbands like Muse in the healthcare industry.

A future beyond healthcare

Other creative uses for brainwave technology will have to come from third-party developers. Fortunately, InteraXon plans to make that part easy. Prior to the expiration of their Indiegogo page, early-adopting developers could purchase the aptly named “Developer Muse” for a $190 donation. Now, late arrivers will have to make use of the standard device’s “basic” SDK, which will become available when Muse officially launches its $249 headband in 2014.

InteraXon hasn’t said how SDK licensing will work beyond the included “basic” setup just yet,  but Muse’s FAQ page claims it will “allow access to raw brain wave data” for multiple desktop and mobile platforms. They also mention a tier system that will give developers “limitless” opportunities to make use of the device—as long as their funds are equally boundless.

All money aside, there’s no shortage of potential uses for Muse once it hits the consumer market. Think of the simplest app you use on a daily basis. If it uses binary controls, it can support brainwave technology.

A developer could, for example, scroll through simple information apps—like weather or local news—with a burst of brain power. Makers of “one-touch” games, where users make a forward-moving character jump by tapping the screen, could remove touching from their control schemes altogether. Phones themselves could relegate simple commands like locking the screen to brain wave functions as well.

As with any new technology, the market largely decides how far Muse will go on the consumer front. With other wearable devices like Google Glass and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smartwatch just starting to hit the market, will the public be ready for another “revolution” in the way we interact with our devices?

It’ll undoubtedly take a few killer apps to sell technologies like Muse to consumers in the beginning, but it will take continual app support from a number of developers to make it a worthwhile device. It’s a cycle that has buried other peripheral hardware in the past, and one InteraXon needs to keep in mind if they plan to succeed.

Other uses of brain wave tech

Healthcare may be among the first industries to make specialized use of portable brainwave readers, but they’re not likely to be the last. Advertisers and marketers would drool at the ability to know how a potential customer’s brain is responding to products as they window shop, and that’s exactly what a competitor called Neurocam aims to do.

Like Muse, the device works in conjunction with smart devices to get a read on user activity. Instead of a wireless connection, however, the phone physically connects to the Neurocam. Using the phone’s processing power and its own sensors, the device records brain wave spikes and pauses in motion, allowing it to build a list of likes and dislikes for each individual user. The person wearing the device can also use its camera to record and upload video to social media networks like Facebook.

Emotiv Research, the company behind the above-mentioned self-stopping car, has also seen users do interesting things with their products. A team of Chinese researchers connected one of the company’s headsets to a flying drone, and using a combination of EEG reading and head tracking technologies, allowed users to pilot it without their hands. Even more exciting, users can send simple commands like “hard left” and “right” via their thoughts, and even blink to have it take pictures, according to Discovery.com.

Lots of promising uses are coming out of brainwave-reading technology, and they’re coming from multiple industries. Even if Muse doesn’t make it to the big time, something implementing the technology—be it an open-ended solution like the headband or a single-purpose device like the mind-controlled drone—will.

A no-touch tech for the masses

A reliable, thought-controlled interface of some sort will crack the mainstream, and it’ll probably happen soon. Whether Muse makes a splash or proves too advanced for its time, some amazing breakthrough is bound to happen. If voice recognition—another field researchers and tech companies have spent big bucks on for decades—can become a standard feature, then a speechless version is the natural progression. Given that the technology is already available today to some degree, expect to see something big from this field in the very near future.

Read more about wearable technology in Mutual Mobile’s latest Trend Report.