The idea of controlling physical objects with thoughts conjures up images of Darth Vader. And Jim McKeeth's talk on building thought-controlled drones at the recent Wearable Tech Conference did exactly that. But it also explained the spike in brain-reading technology patents.
McKeeth built his thought-controlled drone using Parrot's AR Drone 2 and the Emotiv Epoc EEG headset. Both the drone and the headset operate over Wi-Fi and have multi-platform software development kits (SDK.)
Developers can write software using an SDK to control the drone's height and flight direction over a Wi-Fi link. Brainwaves or EEG can be read over a Wi-Fi link using the Emotiv headset. Emotive's SDK lets developers build apps that read brainwave activity programmatically on a PC or mobile device. With a few hundred lines of Pascal code on a PC, McKeeth wove the drone's programmatic control functions together with the headset's brainwave readings. He converted the headset into a thought-controlled drone joy stick.
To eliminating any disbelief during the demonstration, McKeeth chose a volunteer from the audience. After a short explanation about how to think a unique thought for rotating the drone in the left direction, he gave control of the drone to the volunteer. McKeeth cautioned the volunteer that negation, such as thinking "do not rotate left" won't work to control the drone. Negation requires a separate unique thought, such as "rotate right."
The thought-controlled drone makes an important point. What would have taken millions of dollars of equipment and years of development not long ago now cost less than $1,000 and a weekend of an experienced developer's time to build.
Last year, brainwave-reading patents quadrupled compared to 2010 and doubled over 2012, according to SharpBrains, a market researcher focused on this type of technology. Sharpbrains CEO Alvara Fernandez said "[the] expansion into non-medical use shows that we are at the dawn of the pervasive non-medical neuro-technology age," explaining the spike in patents.
Brainwave-reading technologies called electroencephalogram (EEG) were previously restricted to expensive medical devices used to diagnose conditions, such as epilepsy, dementia, and narcolepsy. Now the technologies are being applied to non-medical neuro-monitoring to evaluate mental states in real-time.
Reuters reported that consumer market researcher Nielsen leads the pack, with patents describing ways to detect brain activity with EEG and translate it into what someone truly thinks about, say, a new product, advertising, or packaging.
Reuters also reported that Microsoft Corp. holds patents that assess mental states, with the goal of determining the most effective way to present information. If software knows a user's attention is wandering, it could hold back complicated material. Another Microsoft patent describes a neuro-system that claims to discern whether a computer user is amenable to receiving advertisements.
One interesting patent example the SharpBrains cited (without revealing the patent holder's identity) measures a subject's threshold concentration to determine the appropriate time to allow a notification interruption.
Emotiv's support forums make many references to potential applications, and the company responds enthusiastically with regular warnings that its EEG headset is a consumer device and not a medical device, putting the onus for safety on the application developer. In between the disclaimers, Emotiv mentioned thought-controlled typing, wheelchairs, and game controllers.
SmartBrain ranks brainwave-reading companies based on a patent strength index. Along with Microsoft and Nielsen, the list of top 25 companies include BodyMedia (JawBone), Accenture, and IBM. All of this interest suggests that EEG sensors will appear more frequently in wearable consumer devices.
Consumer-level pricing of EEG devices of increasing sophistication will lead to more experimentation and innovation deriving from the apps that can accurately convert thoughts into something actionable.