Researchers can control virtual objects with mind

The research could be used for paralysis, video games and more.

Jeff Hargarten

A helicopter expertly weaved through golden rings scattered across a virtual Northrop Mall, the pilot using only the power of the human brain.

Researchers at the University of MinnesotaâÄôs biomedical engineering department unveiled a method last month that allows people to control virtual 3-D objects entirely with brainwaves after more than 10 years of work.

A âÄúthinking cap,âÄù an apparatus resembling a shower cap thatâÄôs embedded with 64 electrodes interprets brainwaves, said Bin He, the lead researcher on the project. A brain-computer interface (BCI) then translates the signals into instructions for the simulation.

âÄúItâÄôs very successful and weâÄôre very excited,âÄù He said.

Similar experiments in the past used invasive implants of computer chips in the brain with wires protruding from the heads of monkeys.

âÄúWe donâÄôt want to drill holes in peopleâÄôs brains,âÄù He said.

He has spent his entire life on developing a non-invasive method of interpreting brainwaves for mainstream use.

âÄúItâÄôs completely noninvasive, with no cutting of human flesh whatsoever,âÄù said Alexander Doud, a member of the research team.

Four years ago, the project had test subjects control a mouse cursor on a screen by imagining where they wanted to move it, but major strides have been made since then.

The most recent breakthrough had three test subjects mind-controlling a virtual helicopter through a set of 11 randomly-positioned golden rings without touching the edges. The test had 85 percent accuracy, Doud said.

âÄúThe brain-computer interface was fast, accurate and continuous,âÄù he said.

But He said he will continue working to further develop the interface. The goal is to improve the accuracy, he said.

The biomedical engineering department has been around for 11 years. In that time, it has expanded its neural research as brainwave technology becomes more common.

In 2009, Toyota unveiled a wheelchair operable by brainwaves. Neurowear, another Japanese company, released wearable brain-powered cat ears this year.

In July, production company B-Reel remotely controlled slot cars using brainwaves, and California company NeuroSky sells mind-controlled headphones, athletic wear and a headband that monitors how well students are paying attention to their studies.

Researchers at Duke University conducted experiments similar to the UniversityâÄôs last month where monkeys moved a virtual arm using only their brain power, and the Berlin Institute of Technology developed a method of braking a simulated car with a similar cap.

But the UniversityâÄôs method is more precise and has a potential for more widespread use.

Researcher He said brainwave technology is still in the early stages, but the UniversityâÄôs experiment could lead to the disabled moving robotic limbs at will or even extend beyond the medical field and into gaming and other everyday activities.

âÄúStudents love it, and I love it,âÄù he said.