by Tyler Mangrum

Ever wish you could control your computer with a thought? Now you can.

It may seem unthinkable. It was not too long ago that completing an online master degree was a novel concept, but it’s true; using EEG technology, that same student may soon be writing his thesis without ever touching his hands to a keyboard.

Electroencephalography, abbreviated as EEG, is the reading of electric activity on a person’s scalp. It’s been used in the medical field for decades, but it hasn’t been until recently that it’s applications as a computer interface has been explored.

One of the first and obviously most profitable applications of EEG is its use as a videogame controller. Currently, NeuroSky Inc. is one of the forerunners of the technology, and has developed an EEG headset called MindWave Mobile. The $129 headset monitors concentration, blinking, and relaxation, which are used as controls for a variety of games, including games for mobile devices and the PC.

As the technology is still in its infancy, the games are still very basic in nature, such as a version of Pong that relies on concentration, or “MindBlaster,” which requires complete focus in order to blow up invading alien ships.

Emotiv Systems, however, has taken the technology a step further with their $300 EEG headset, the EPOC Neuroheadset. Utilizing a wider range of sensors than the MindWave, Emotiv Systems sees the EPOC as a new form of computer input that will have numerous uses outside of gaming. Using what Emotiv calls a “mind-keyboard,” the headset binds keystrokes to events detected by the headset, and could then be used to type out documents or surf the web.

Experts believe that the practical applications for the medical field are also immense. Wheelchairs and other equipment for the disabled may soon be controlled via EEG headsets. Additionally, psychologists hope that the technology will soon be used as a discreet way of monitoring a patient’s state of relaxation in cognitive therapy. Since many of the games currently utilizing EEG rely on concentration on par with meditation, the development of games meant to de-stress the user may soon be a common way of treating anxiety disorders.

Unsurprisingly, as these headsets rely on a user’s focus and concentration in order to function as an input device, researchers are now developing ways to use EEG in education in order to improve knowledge retention and speed of learning. With that goal in mind, Bilge Mutlu and Dan Szafi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been using EEG to create a humanoid robot teacher.

When programming the robots behavior, Mutlu and Szafi studied the ways that teachers use pitch, volume and gestures in order to attract attention from the students. The robot then told a group of students a Japanese folk story, using EEG headsets monitor a student’s levels of interest and attention to what the robot was saying. If the student’s attention began to waiver, the EEG would alert the robot teacher who would then change the way it spoke, or begin motioning to itself, objects, or the audience. The researchers found that the ability for the robot to be immediately aware of a student’s waning interest greatly improved the student’s ability to remember elements of the story.

“The idea of recapturing students’ fading attention in this way would have significant implications for the field of education,” said Andrew Ng, director of Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. “One-on-one tutoring has been repeatedly shown to give dramatic results in student learning, but the main problem with it is with the cost and that it’s just difficult to scale. The vision of automatically measuring student engagement so as to build a more interactive teacher is very exciting.”

While EEG still has a ways to go before we can say goodbye to the mouse and keyboard, the day when your computer will need only a thought to operate is coming much sooner than you think.


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