Glancing at a stereo and turning it on with a thought may have once been science fiction, but inside a virtual world at the University of Rochester, people are listening to music by simply wishing it so. Outfitted with a virtual reality helmet and a computer program adept at recognizing key brain signals, volunteers use their thoughts to take actions like those of any apartment dweller-turning on the television or the stereo, for instance. The line of research, which links a brain and computer in a near real-world environment, may someday allow patients with extreme paralysis to regain some control of their surroundings, say the project's developers, and could eventually eliminate keyboards and computer mice as the go-betweens connecting our thoughts and the actions we wish to see in our environment.
While several teams around the world are working on brain-computer interfaces (BCI), computer science graduate student Jessica Bayliss is the first to show that detection of the brain's weak electrical signals is possible in a busy environment filled with activity. She has shown that volunteers who don a virtual reality helmet in her lab can control elements in a virtual world, including turning lights on and off and bringing a mock-up of a car to a stop by thought alone. Though all this is currently taking place only in virtual reality, the team is confident that the technology will make the jump to the "real world" and should soon enable people to look around a real apartment and take control in a way they couldn't before.
"This is a remarkable feat of engineering," says Dana Ballard, professor of computer science and Bayliss' adviser. "She's managed to separate out the tiny brain signals from all the electric noise of the virtual reality gear. We usually try to read brain signals in a pristine, quiet environment, but a real environment isn't so quiet. Jessica has found a way to effectively cut through the interference."