Science Scope

Video: Subjects move virtual helicopter with thoughts

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Researchers have developed software that allows people to move virtual objects with their thoughts, a finding that could someday help disabled people.

And we all thought the Wii was cool.

In the epitome of a "Look Ma, no hands" experiment, researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed software that allows people to move virtual objects with their thoughts.

In the experiment, three subjects were hooked up to EEG sensors (such as those pictured left), which measured electrical activity in those subjects' brains.

They were then placed in front of a screen showing a virtual helicopter and asked to move it around using only their minds. No joysticks, no Wii remote, nada.

Well, except for the little sensors on their heads, which were monitoring the way the neurons inside were firing. Software then translated that neural activity to move the virtual chopper.

The subjects were able to control the helicopter's movement 85% of the time as they completed complex tasks, such as moving the helicopter toward a ring and then moving it through the ring without touching it.

Although this is a small study, the development, which was published in PLoS ONE on October 26, could someday help the disabled move wheelchairs or robotic arms or other objects using their minds.

How it works

When you think a thought, the nerve cells in your brain, called neurons, send messages to each other with using electrical impulses. An EEG attaches electrodes to your head that carry the electrical signals inside your brain to a machine that amplifies them.

In this case, the researchers asked their subjects to imagine moving their arms forward in order to drive the virtual helicopter forward. They were told that they should imagine no movement in order to move it backwards. They could rotate the chopper in either direction by imagining moving their left or right hands, and they could think about moving their tongue or feet in order to raise or lower the helicopter.

Significance and future applications

The experiment was significant because although EEGs can pick up electrical activity in the brain, there is usually a lot of noise, making it difficult to decipher precise thoughts. For instance, earlier this year, a team of researchers in Berlin determined that they could detect when drivers in a car simulator intended to hit the brakes. But whether to brake or not is a much simpler signal to detect than precise 3-D motion of a helicopter (forward, back, left, right, up, down) through a ring without touching it.

The experiment is also significant because this was one of the first such brainwave-powered techniques that did not require electrodes to be implanted in the brain. ABC News reported:

"People have never done anything like this using noninvasive techniques," said [researcher Bin He] in a telephone interview. There have been other experiments before, but the most successful required that electrodes be surgically implanted in the brain. In one famous but sad case, Massachusetts researchers were able to get a young quadriplegic man to steer his own wheelchair -- but he ended the experiment, partly because he hated having wires inside his skull.

Although this is still in the early stages, you can see in this video that the subject was able to move the helicopter fairly well.

photo: Thuglas/Wikimedia

via: Scientific American, ABC News

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure