Hitachi: Move the train with your brain

UPDATED: 15:59, June 25, 2007

Forget the clicker: A new technology in Japan could let you control electronic devices without lifting a finger simply by reading brain activity.

The "brain-machine interface" developed by Hitachi analyzes slight changes in the brain's blood flow and translates brain motion into electric signals.

A cap connects by optical fibers to a mapping device, which links, in turn, to a toy train set via a control computer and motor during one recent demonstration at Hitachi's Advanced Research Laboratory in Hatoyama, just outside Tokyo.

"Take a deep breath and relax," said Kei Utsugi, a researcher, while demonstrating the device.

At his prompting, a reporter did simple calculations in her head, and the train sprang forward - apparently indicating activity in the brain's frontal cortex, which handles problem solving.

Activating that region of the brain - by doing sums or singing a song - is what makes the train run, according to Utsugi. When one stops the calculations, the train stops, too.

Underlying Hitachi's brain-machine interface is a technology called optical topography, which sends a small amount of infrared light through the brain's surface to map out changes in blood flow.

Although brain-machine interface technology has traditionally focused on medical uses, makers like Hitachi and Japanese automaker Honda have been racing to refine the technology for commercial application.

Hitachi's scientists are set to develop a brain TV remote controller letting users turn a TV on and off or switch channels by only thinking.

Honda, whose interface monitors the brain with an MRI machine like those used in hospitals, is keen to apply the interface to intelligent, next-generation automobiles.

The technology could one day replace remote controls and keyboards and perhaps help disabled people operate electric wheelchairs, beds or artificial limbs.

A key advantage to Hitachi's technology is that sensors don't have to enter the brain. Earlier technologies developed by US companies like Neural Signals required implanting a chip under the skull.

Any brain-machine interface device for widespread use would be "a little further down the road," Koizumi said.

He added, however, that the technology is entertaining in itself and could easily be applied to toys.

"It's really fun to move a model train just by thinking," he said.

Source: China Daily/Agencies


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