x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Games are fun but medical arena gives food for thought

Tablets and videogaming systems powered by the mind are one thing but much of today's experimentation with thought-controlled technology dates back to work previously conducted within very different laboratory environments.

Tablets and videogaming systems powered by the mind are one thing but much of today's experimentation with thought-controlled technology dates back to work previously conducted within very different laboratory environments.

About a decade ago, one study done through the Andersen Lab at the California Institute of Technology in the United States found that monkeys fitted with brain-reading sensors were capable of being trained to remotely move cursors around their computer monitors. Back then, the research was seen as a step forward to creating prosthetic devices by harnessing brain activity. Similar studies have also tracked electrode-implanted monkeys as they have employed robotic arms to reach for food-including marshmallows-using only their minds. Again, the hope was that one day, humans with limited mobility could mimic such movements.

Even so, none of these experiments seemed to directly help individuals such as Jan Scheuermann, who back in 1996 used to run a party-planning business in California-that is, until her legs began getting progressively weaker. Within two years, in 1998, she had been diagnosed with a medical condition where the connections between her brain and muscles were determined to be deteriorating.

Soon enough, Ms Scheuermann was dubbed a quadriplegic, unable to move either her arms or her legs.

But then, this past December, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh announced Ms Scheuermann had successfully harnessed her mind to move a robotic arm, bend a wrist and close a hand for the first time in nearly a decade.

She did so, in fact, by feeding herself a dark chocolate bar.

Other researchers around the world have similarly worked towards helping individuals with disabilities. For example, researchers in Japan - including the car maker Toyota and the research lab Riken - have worked on a mind-controlled wheelchair. It requires a user to don a sensor-filled cap, which then helps them turn a wheelchair left or right, or move forward.

Of course, the appeal of mind-controlled science has expanded beyond the pool of people who have a disability. That is why consumer electronics companies such as Haier, which is based in China, as well as Samsung, which is headquartered in South Korea, have started testing this technology within television sets and tablet computers. "More recently, the consumer electronics companies have been capitalising on it," says Rich Tehrani, the group editorial director of TMCnet.com, a marketing and media company that focuses on the communications and technology industries.

For the time being, though, electronics manufacturers are still perfecting voice-based, gesture-focused and eye-controlled features and some analysts say everyday mind-powered devices are not as promising in the short-term.

"In the nearer term, it has more opportunity in the medical arena," says Steve Koenig, the director of industry analysis at the US Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group.

"This technology is also being used to evaluate and even treat cognitive disorders," he adds.

"I think using it as a tool in that way could be a real near-term opportunity."

While it remains to be seen whether enough companies act quickly enough to roll out speciality devices for individuals with disabilities, they may get help if components prices fall as more mainstream consumer electronics manufacturers move in with desirable devices.

For now, at least, it remains a race to the finish.

 

business@thenational.ae