Brain-Computer Interfaces

Time-to-Adoption: Four to Five Years
Research in the area of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) has its roots in assistive technology designed to help people who cannot communicate or who are paralyzed. In essence, a brain-computer interface interprets the signals created when the brain’s neurons fire, allowing a computer to translate these into commands that can be used to control output of one kind or another. Researchers are developing brain-controlled robots that can learn to perform actions for paralytics, and brain-computer interfaces for communicating with sufferers of neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS. While still much the stuff of science fiction, some of the research has been very promising, and the first real BCI products are now coming into the market — with some aimed at consumer use.

Even so, educational applications for brain-computer interfaces remain a long way away. Tasks such as typing or performing basic operations with a robot are tremendously useful for patients who are unable to do those things in any other way, but the actions are too slow to be useful to people generally. Early demonstrations of brain-controlled games show some promise, and a number of researchers and developers are working toward improving the state of the art, but brain-computer interfaces are essentially where augmented reality was several years ago: the equipment is awkward to use, unattractive, and not effective enough to appeal to a wide audience yet.

Relevance for Teaching, Learning & Creative Inquiry

Currently, brain-computer interfaces are either used in research studies or intended for patient use, with a few consumer applications designed chiefly for games. The assistive qualities of BCI devices may make it possible for patients to study or continue some occupations that they enjoyed before falling ill, but general educational application remains several years away.

Brain-Computer Interfaces in Practice

  • Intendix is a BCI system designed to assist patients who are unable to use a keyboard. The user concentrates on a letter or an action button in a grid, and the system types that letter or carries out that action: http://www.intendix.com
  • Emotiv has developed a low-cost headset that detects brain activity and drives games, assistive programs, and art-making software based on the user’s thoughts: http://www.ted.com/talks/tan_le_a_headset_that_reads_your_brainwaves.html
  • XWave is a relatively inexpensive BCI headset that connects to an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, allowing a user to control games or meditation exercises: http://www.plxwave.com

For Further Reading

Brain Chips, Battle Suits, and Cochlear Implants
http://www.mcgilldaily.com/articles/37040
(Rebecca Falvey, The McGill Daily, 5 November 2010.) Advances in BCI research may eventually allow the control of devices such as prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs.

Mind Over Matter: Brain Control Interfaces Become a Reality
http://www.extremetech.com/article2/0,2845,2359071,00.asp
(Robert Oschler, ExtremeTech.com, 12 February 2010.) BCI researcher Dr. Gerwin Schalk has developed an advanced pattern detection and visualization tool.

The Robot That Reads Your Mind To Train Itself
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-11457127
(Lakshmi Sandhana, BBC News Technology, 24 October 2010.) Researchers at the University of Washington’s Neural Systems Laboratory are developing a BCI system to control robots.