Brain computer interfaces (BCIs) enable people to control things by thought and nerve signals: they are emerging from the medical research arena. The technology of BCIs is becoming less invasive, sleeker and more powerful, with a growing number of applications from health care to gaming, smart homes to typing, medical research to market research. While not yet a mass market by any means, the potential for interacting with our surroundings in radically new ways is arriving.

What is changing?

Previously, BCIs required an invasive implant inserted directly into the brain with wires tapping into the tissue. Then came a shift to caps which look a bit like a cross between a hairnet and a swimming cap with 10s of sensors linked to a patient’s head; this was followed by sleeker caps with fewer more effective sensors able to pick up sufficient signals for adequate controls, but still needing gel to link them to the person’s head.  The more recent BCI connections have fewer sensors and have become sleeker, better designed headsets for gamers, which look not unlike large blue tooth mobile phone headsets. Work is now underway to develop a BCI capable of working ‘remotely’, through a layer of material in a car seat to ‘read’ the driver’s brain signals.

Why is this important?

There is a growing range of applications to match the changing nature of the technology. In the medical arena, such applications include enabling those who have suffered strokes or other neurological damage to control limbs via BCI; using BCIs to direct a wheelchair which the patient is sitting in and more recently to control a robot at a distance of some 100 kilometres. A group of severely disabled people used the virtual world of Second Life to explore and control their real world environment via BCI. BCIs are also being brought into the home enabling people to control their surroundings, to type and most recently as part of an interactive smart TV produced in China.  This research is literally and metaphorically opening doors to people, providing the potential to give disabled people far greater independence and ability to communicate. In a world of ageing populations and growing numbers of disabled people, the demand for such capabilities will grow.

On lighter note, one ‘fun’ product in Japan was a pair of rabbit ears on a head band which perked up when people were concentrating and drooped when they were not. Apart from proving popular, such a device might for example help children with Attention Deficit Disorders learn to concentrate for longer periods as a result of immediate and clear feedback. Another game required participants to control a ball in a stream of air by concentrating and serious gamers are exploring more complex games via BCI. Given the power of gaming as a driver of innovation the speed at which the technology develops could increase.

Interactive films, where users influence the film via thoughts, although they have been developed as a leisure/ entertainment product are being explored to help prisoners to understand and learn to control their reactions in specific situations, reduce anger and control emotions. Such training courses could help reduce reoffending rates and assist rehabilitation. Similar techniques could revolutionise training courses for people likely to face stressful or difficult situations, to develop negotiation skills or understand interactions.

There is even research into using BCIs to enhance the safety of cars by speeding up response times e.g. braking, based on thought patterns rather than relying on them being translated into action.

Although it is still very early days, not only is the technology becoming more powerful but also easier to use and cheaper. The growing range of applications and research is likely to speed up that process creating an increasingly virtuous circle of opportunity.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.