Power of the mind drives technology
InteraXon team harnesses brainwaves to operate video games, gadgets and even levitating chairs
While they ready the chair you can levitate with your mind, there's time for a little concert ...
Water squirts and pools on the floor as Steve Mann's fingers fly across his "hydraulophone," coaxing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" out of the tadpole-shaped instrument.
"It's sophisticated frolic," says Mann, creator of the hydraulophone, the water organ.
Mann is part of a team behind a little piece of techno Neverland at work on Dundas St. W. In the cluttered offices of InteraXon Thought Controlled Computing, a host of Tinkerbell-worthy gadgets are taking flight.
"It's a pretty creative atmosphere," says lead researcher Ariel Garten, about the fledgling firm. Perhaps the most thought-provoking of the projects being pursued at the funked-out facility are the games and gadgets that can be manipulated with the mind.
Your mind can even levitate a chair and influence the accompanying sound and music, Garten explains.
To run the mind-controlled devices, users have electroencephalograph sensors. These sensors pick up the tiny electronic pulses — microvolt in intensity — that buzz like subatomic bees across your head. The pulses are the signature signals of brain activity.
All of our thoughts, movements, and states of mind are the products of neurochemical cascades that run along neurological pathways in the form of electronic impulses.
"The summation of all this electrical communication can actually be read outside of your brain," says Garten, an accomplished artist and fashion designer, who also trained in neuroscience. "And outside your head the amassment of all this electrical activity is summed up ... and you can read the general trend of your brain."
The specific "trend" of impulses the InteraXon team capture are Alpha waves, which are generated when the mind is "blissfully, calmly" relaxed, Garten explains.
"So you have to relax," she says as you sink back into the cushioned chair, which dangles on a chain from a ceiling missing a few tiles.
Breathe deeply and slowly, think of ocean waves. And on a computer screen before you, a line measuring your Alpha wave output begins to spike as you will your mind to relax.
When you're calmed down enough to push the spike past a tripping line, an electronic winch begins to lift the chair.
"So, it's a really nice metaphor for a kind of meditative state," Garten says. "Everybody has always dreamed that as you meditate you could ... levitate yourself."
As metaphors go, it may be nice imagery. As a practical matter, it results from InteraXon's painstaking software programming that allows it to capture the Alpha waves, isolate them from all other electronic noise — from other computers, cellphones — and amplify them into a usable electronic signal.
"All of that is nullified and we're just getting your pure brainwave in a way that's meaningful," says Garten. And with that isolated brainwave, Garten says, anything that can be plugged in can conceivably be manipulated by Alpha activity.
InteraXon's main goal, Garten says, is as lofty as the chair.
"We're here to change the face of thought-controlled computing," she says. "(It's) becoming much more common and it's really the breaking point for this technology."
Garten describes the company as a "start up" that launched a year ago. It has five partners, who initially financed the company themselves, but buzz about their work has attracted willing investors.
InteraXon is actively developing commercial games and other gadgets for a general market.
The technology also has obvious implications for people with physical impairments, from those who suffer from such degenerative diseases such as ALS and Parkinson's, to those with spinal-cord injuries. But InteraXon's focus is to bring the technology to the general public.
And as interest heightens and technology is created — in the form of computer games and other gadgets — the sophistication will grow and prices fall, Garten predicts.
It's this technology-price cycle that will bring thought-controlled computing to the field of assisted medical devices, says Tom Chau, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Pediatric Rehabilitation Engineering at Toronto's Bloorview MacMillan Children's Centre.
Chau's Bloorview team creates devices to help severely disabled kids interact with the world.
"Of course, the more this kind of technology gets developed, the more useful it will be for our needs," says Chau.