Mind-controlled drones go on display at Dubai forum
It might be an easy trick for a Jedi warrior – take a sphere and make it rise up from the ground with just a single thought. But it's not so simple in the real world, or at least, it wasn't.
At this year’s Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, Emotiv are displaying their new lightweight plastic headset that can read the electrical impulses from the brain though the scalp, record them on a computer and then configure the thought patterns into instructions for a small drone.
This means that using brainwaves alone, it is now possible to activate a drone and send it flying through the air. You imagine the drone taking off and it obeys.
Olivier Oullier, president of Emotiv, says the device is more than an impressive party trick.
“What is more important than the hardware is the fact that we have this community of people that are sending us the data, and that we’ve got the data scientists and machine learning and deep-learning algorithms that allow us to identify patterns.”
To built up a database of how the brain functions under different conditions, the company has distributed 80,000 headsets that are being used by 120,000 people in 120 countries.
They record activities that range from monitoring sleeping patterns to using the headsets to control video games.
The results, says Mr Oullier, have widespread applications: “Think about any job where attention is required to save lives, to preserve lives. Pilots, power plant operators, surgeons, or just a person working at their desk.”
By monitoring brain activity it is possible to detect when that person starts to mentally drift off from their task and then warn them via an app.
“There are people who cannot focus for more than 45 minutes,” Mr Oullier says, “The app tells them to take a break, go for a walk.
“When they come back after five minutes, their attention levels are back up, where as if you had kept that person two hours in front of a computer, they are less efficient.”
Emotiv was founded by Tan Le, who was born in Vietnam, but entered Australia with her family as a young refugee in 1982.
It was her goal, says Mr Oullier, to "provide brain healthcare to everyone. Basically we are bringing neuroscience to the masses.”
Their research has huge potential to change the way we live. They have already discovered that advances in automobile technology designed to make our drive easier, can, in fact, make it more dangerous under certain circumstances.
“Everyone is talking about autonomous vehicles, but we have a good decade before they take over," Mr Oullier says.
“During this gap, cars are assisting you more and more. And one thing about human behaviour and attention is that the more help you get, the more relaxed you get and the less attention you give.“
One example is the large GPS navigation screen that is now standard in many vehicles. “Here in Dubai, if there is a sandstorm, or when there is a lot of fog, one thing that should happen is to shut off your GPS," says Mr Oullier.
“It seems very counter-intuitive, but what happens if people can't see around, is that they look at the GPS and then what happens is they just hit the car in front.“
Motor insurers will become increasingly aware of what Mr Oullier calls “legal distractions” when calculating premiums based on the accident risks posed by various models.
At the same time, car manufacturers will explore ways of making their product safer and less expensive to insure. For example, if the vehicle detects from the driver’s brain patterns that they are becoming dangerously fatigued, it issues a warning and then turns off the engine
The future offers much more than levitating drones. The technology that allows devices to be operated just by thought has the power to transform the lives of those with severe disabilities.
“Beyond autonomy, you are giving them back their dignity," says Mr Oullier.
“The fact that they can do something without asking [for help]. That's huge.”
Last year, the company worked with Rodrigo Mendes, a Brazilian who was left paralysed nearly 30 years ago after being shot in a car jacking.
A racing fan, who now runs a disability foundation, he was able to drive an F1 car using his mind. The specially adapted vehicle had no pedals and no steering wheel, with Mr Mendes able to accelerate just by thinking about it.
Another guest at the GESF forum was the four-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton. The British driver has now accepted a challenge to take on Mr Mendes on the race track, with the condition that both drivers are in cars controlled only by the mind. Hamilton already thinks he is the best driver in the world, now he has to prove it.