Brainwaves to raise the tech game

Mind-controlled gadgetry was once the realm of science fiction but increasingly the use of mankind's own super-computer to make things move remotely has become a commercial reality.

NeuroSky's brainwave starter kit called MindWave Mobile is displayed at the Computex Taipei show in May. Mandy Cheng / AFP
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Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it is a growing fleet of thought-controlled helicopters.

Companies around the world have been trying for years to tap the power of the mind to control different gadgets, as executives hope to one day make buttons and dials obsolete for navigating technological features.

One such device now fuelled by brainpower includes the Puzzlebox Orbit, a US$89 to $299 toy helicopter that operates through a headset which records electrical activity from the mind. It requires "focused concentration" or "a state of mental relaxation" to elevate the machine and took two years to develop.

Then there is the robotic quadcopter used in a study by researchers at the University of Minnesota, who found "subjects were able to quickly, accurately and continuously pursue a series of foam ring targets and pass through them in a real-world environment using only their 'thoughts,'" according to a June issue of the Journal of Neural Engineering.

In the future, some of the technology within these helicopters could be harnessed in an array of devices to assist individuals who otherwise cannot access certain features with their hands or fingertips. "Mind-controlled technology may help disabled patients to gain ability to move or control devices," says Bin He, one of the authors behind the Journal of Neural Engineering study.

"It may also allow healthy subjects to enhance their functionality such as improving driving," adds Mr He, who is also a professor of biomedical engineering and the director of the institute for engineering in medicine at the University of Minnesota in the United States.

Some everyday devices already include features that may be useful for individuals with a disability. Certain smartphone models, for instance, can answer a call or read navigational directions aloud when an owner uses their voice, waves their hand or even via the movement of their eyes.

But using brainwaves would be a major step forward and some electronics makers have begun moving in this direction.

Samsung, for one, is collaborating with experts in the US while testing technology that could use a person's mind to activate an app, select a song or otherwise control a tablet.

The results of the experiment, which is utilising Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 slate computer, may eventually help individuals who suffer from mobility impairments, according to a recent report in the MIT Technology Review.

Meanwhile, Haier has previously showcased a prototype of a mind-controlled television that relied on a headset. It was during an IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin two years ago when the Chinese-based manufacturer demonstrated how some attendees could use their thoughts to change a TV's volume as well as its channels.

"These types of technologies come from our team in China," a spokesperson for Haier has confirmed.

Most experts agree purely mind-controlled features are some years away from becoming mainstream, and even something of a final frontier when it comes to innovation within the consumer electronics sector.

"That's the [dream] of this industry - to have a thought that the machine understands," says Rich Tehrani, who covers communications and technology trends as group editorial director of, a marketing and media company.

The eventual goal, Mr Tehrani says, is for manufactures to eliminate the so-called "middleware" that is needed for the brain to interact with a computer or device. "It becomes more and more efficient as you take any of the middle communication mechanisms away, and eventually, you get to the Star Trek world where its brain-to-brain communication," says Mr Tehrani.

In the past, thought-controlled technology within this sector has been largely "limited to entertainment - moving an object around on a screen, like in gaming", says Steve Koenig, the director of industry analysis at the US Consumer Electronics Association.

This has started to change in recent years, as companies have developed more interactive products and games based on thought-controlled technology. Emotiv, which has offices in Australia, the US and various parts of Asia, claims it can help consumers "experience the fantasy of controlling and influencing the virtual environment with your mind".

One of its offerings, the $299 Epoc neuroheadset, relies on sensors while trying to tune into a player's mind. It connects to various PCs and allows a wearer to use their thoughts or feelings to create art or music, or play virtual games.

Mattel, the toy maker, is behind a different type of game called Mindflex that features a pair of headsets worn by two separate people. The headsets include sensors, which are applied to the forehead and ears and then transmit a signal to a fan that spins around and controls the levitation of a small ball. The individual with better concentration effectively spins the fan faster, blowing the ball higher and winning a battle of brainwaves. In some ways, Mindflex shares similarities with the more advanced thought-controlled helicopters Mr He has worked with.

But many consumers have been reluctant to levitate onto the thought-controlled bandwagon, so to speak, and sales of these kinds of gadgets have been limited thus far.

"A lot of these technologies require wearing a headset, or a forehead device, and asking the consumer to wear something can present a challenge to adoption because some don't want to wear their technology," says Mr Koenig. "Looking at thought control, it's such a distant opportunity," he adds.

Not all companies within this space like to be associated with the phrase "mind-controlled" tech, either.

NeuroSky, which creates biosensors for wearable devices and has reportedly worked with Haier on its TV, aims to let people interact with machines "naturally and intuitively", says Pedro Vecchi, the company's product manager.

"Thought control is part of it, but it's not 'it'," he adds.

The eight-year-old business is behind MindWave Mobile, which NeuroSky touts as the world's first comprehensive brainwave-reading device and costs $99.99 to $129.99. Some of the company's other technology includes a Zone Meter, which shows professional athletes -such as professional archers - how to improve their performance by finding the so-called "sweet zone".

"We have algorithms that capture dedication, attention- like focus-and your state of relaxation or meditation," says Mr Vecchi.

"We have other algorithms coming out that can 'feel' your state of emotion and are more aligned with how much effort you're putting into a certain task."

In these cases, it is still about mind control but less about a person leveraging their thoughts to control a particular device - and more about them learning how to control their thoughts to enhance performance.