Can mind-controlled VR games help stroke patients?
Cogitat, a neurotech company, develops a system that can translate human brain activity into actions without carrying out any physical movement.
Simple virtual reality tasks can be performed while a person is wearing a prototype headset, just by thinking about them.
For instance, a person can move in a game, where a VR jet ski is controlled by handles, just by thinking about it, rather than squeezing his hands.
A similar concept is being developed by Elon Musk's Neuralink. It is known as brain-computer interface and many neurotech firms are exploring it.
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One of the goals is to eventually let individuals who have experienced a stroke or have other brain injuries, remotely control phones or computers.
A chip being implanted into the brain itself is required by the method developed by Neuralink, which has already worked only with animals and has been denounced for such treatment. Videos have been released, which, according to Neuralink, show a monkey playing the video game Pong with its mind, and the brain activity of a pig, with a chip placed in its brain.
Another company, Cogitat, develops a system that works on top of the head rather than inside it.
One day, it could take the form of a headband worn with a VR headset. Some firms are already making their own hardware; however, as a university spin-off, Cogitat is just concentrating on the tech behind it. Although the tech is still in its early stages, it has already been tested on stroke patients and had some promising results. The purpose is to encourage the patients to carry on with rehabilitation exercises by making them more engaging.
"When a person has had a stroke, and they can't move their arm, they're very demotivated to partake in rehabilitation. But our technology will allow them to imagine moving their hand and seeing a hand move on the screen, which we believe will motivate them to start their course of physiotherapy," Mr Ponniah told BBC podcast Tech Tent.
"If you don't choose to interact with the system, nothing happens," says computer scientist Dimitrios Adamos from Imperial College London.
Beginners find it harder than it sounds, because they have to think about doing a movement, but they will not be actually doing it. At the same time, they have to try not thinking about any other thing, which could increase the brain activity and result in more noise for the tech to decode while it searches for the motor signal.
Other companies focus on other types of brain activity, like the visual signals, where people can focus on a number and press buttons on a screen.
Cogitat says it expects that within the next 12 months, it will have a working prototype of its technology, but many challenges are still ahead for neurotech.
Brain activity is still a subject of study, as it is unique to every person, and it is not constant. It changes throughout the day, and many factors like tiredness, dehydration, and aging can affect it. Brain activity reading systems need continual recalibration.
Cogitat is quickening the calibration process by training its tech on a database of hundreds of volunteers who have been testing it out. Members of the crew were largely students.
In a recent global machine-learning competition, Mr. Adamos says that Cogitat not only took first place, but it also beat a team from the US Army.
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