April 15, 2011 -- Think you know what it means to put your mind to a task? Think again.
A new class of brain-computer interface technology could not only let you control devices and play games with your thoughts, but also help detect fatigue in air traffic controllers and other workers in high-stakes positions.
Researchers at the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, have made it possible to place a cellphone call by just thinking about the number. They say the technology could also tell whether a person is actively thinking, or nodding off.
Tzzy-Ping Jung, a neuroscience researcher and associate director of the center, said the system uses brainwave sensors (or Electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes) attached to a headband to measure a person's brain activity. The brain signals are then transferred to a cellphone through a Bluetooth device connected to the headband.
Applications Could Provide Hands-Free Dialing, Help for People with Disabilities
In the lab, he said, test subjects sit in front of a screen displaying 10 digits, each flashing at a different rate. The number 1, for example, may flash nine times per second, while the number 2 flashes at a slightly higher frequency.
As participants view each number, the corresponding frequency is reflected in the visual cortex in their brains, he said. That activity is picked up by the sensors, relayed through the wireless Bluetooth device and then used to dial numbers on the cell phone.
Assuming all goes according to plan, if you place the headband on your head, sit at the screen, and then view the digits 1-2-0-2-4-5-6-1-4-1-4, your thoughts alone should lead you to the White House switchboard.
Jung said that results vary from person to person, but many people can reach 90 or even 100 percent accuracy.
"Probably I was the worst subject. I think I reached 85 percent," he said.
For now, the technology is just in the developmental phase. But Jung, who has been studying neurological engineering since 1993, said, "We're trying to move from the lab to the real world, step by step."
In time, applications could potentially give consumers a hands-free way to use their cell phones or people with disabilities a new way to interact with the world. But, Jung said, more passive uses of the technology could already be used to detect fatigue or lapses in attention in people who work in fields where concentration is essential.
Brain-Computer Tech Could Alert Workers When Attention Drops
"In the past, all these brain-computer interfaces have targeted a very small fraction of the patient population," he said. "But [people in] the general, healthy population actually suffer, from time to time, from mental fatigue. …Attention deficit can lead to catastrophic consequences."
Those consequences have been especially visible in recent months, as air traffic controllers have been found sleeping on the job at airports across the country. This week, an FAA official resigned the day after reports of yet another drowsy air traffic controller.
Jung said the same brainwave sensors that enable thought-controlled dialing could be used for cognitive monitoring.
Air traffic controllers, truck drivers, members of the military and anyone else whose lapse in concentration could put lives at risk could strap on a headband (or helmet) and be alerted when their brain activity indicates a drop in attention or alertness. They might hear a warning signal, or get a tactile alert, Jung said.
Technology More Ready Than Consumers
But he said that while the technology is almost ready, people might not be ready to accept it.
"One of the difficulties is people don't want to be watched," he said. "It's sort of like Big Brother watching you all the time."
He also said that he and his team are continuing to refine their technology to tease apart various internal and external factors, like a person's medication or outside power lines, that can generate electronic "noise" and make it more difficult to discern important signals.
Still, given the positive implications, he said, major organizations are interested in the research. His university has contracts with the Army, Navy and DARPA to study how brain-computer interfaces could help soldiers, he said.
And Jung and his team are not the only ones interested in blending the worlds of computing and neuroscience.
NeuroSky, a San Jose, Calif.-based company, already sells a wireless EEG headset that it says can be used for education and gaming.
The MindWave headset measures brainwave impulses from a person's forehead and can be used to gauge student attention levels during lessons, monitor daily mediation and play games that depend on a user's emotional control.
Tansy Brook, the head of communications for the company, said applications for people who work in hazardous work environments, such as air traffic controllers or construction workers, could be realized in the next five years.
"There's a general awareness you want people to have in those situations, they need to be paying attention every single second," she said. "There is amazing potential."