If you’re among the millions of viewers who’ve tuned into the Netflix hit “Stranger Things,” you’ve seen the character Eleven use her telekinetic powers to liberate herself and her friends from the Hawkins lab goons, all using the power of her mind. Brain-computer interface (BCI) technology seeks to enable something similar, but for less nefarious purposes than beating up prison guards or flipping over a van-load of villains simply by thinking about it. One of the most obvious applications for BCI technology is in the gaming and entertainment industries, but it has the potential for much more.
Boston-based startup Neurable recently unveiled what they call “the world’s first brain-computer interface for virtual reality (VR).” According to company vice president Michael Thompson in an article on Medium, the integrated platform was built to enable developers to create brain-controlled content for VR. How does a brain computer interface work, exactly? Neurable’s website puts it this way: “A BCI is a communication pathway that uses hardware and software to enable control of computers through cerebral activity. Neurable’s BCI uses non-invasive methods to record and analyze brain activity, translating thought into action.” BCIs seek to decipher brain activity to determine a person’s intention, especially in VR and augmented reality (AR) environments. This is done by placing dry electrodes on the head, which record brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG). The software analyzes the brain signals to figure out user intent. Neurable says it wants its software to “function as a natural extension of our brains.”
If BCIs allow people to interact with AR/VR environments using only their brain activity, what could it do for the physically impaired? While using brain signals to play virtual reality games without using player controls is indeed exciting, the more compelling potential for BCI technology seems to be in the area of helping the disabled. In fact, according to Neurable’s website, research into BCIs began in university laboratories in the 1970s; a primary focus since then has been to provide a communications pathway for the disabled. To date, success has been achieved in restoring communication to those with neuromuscular disorders, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), brain stem stroke, or spinal cord injuries. Non-clinical applications include monitoring the brain during exercise or meditation to help users improve their mental state. Allowing those with neuromuscular disorders to communicate, and augmenting other human functions for the physically impaired, is certainly one of the more hopeful and empowering applications of BCI technology.