Books written by Ray Sullivan

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Samsung Has Its Thinking Cap On

One of the side events I witnessed at the Gadget Show Live recently was a demonstration of a thought controlled roller skateboard, demonstrated by one of the founding fathers of Twitter.  Putting aside any inclinations towards scepticism - the thought control element could have been kidology, it may have been controlled by a remote control out of sight of the thousand or so spectators - it was shown to drive around the small arena, accelerating and decelerating as needed to negotiate the circuit.

It worked reasonably well - it was driven onto the main stage, down a ramp and around the front seats on three sides of the stage, with the driver crouching down and slapping kids on the palm as he swept past.  The concept is that you train the computer - a Windows 8 tablet on this occasion, presumably because the Gadget Show Live was sponsored by Windows 8 although it is understood that a Samsung Android tablet has been used in earlier iterations - using a headset that is sensitive to neuron activity in the brain.

It appears that each driver has to train the computer to recognise the way their brain generates neuron activity. We're all different, apparently, so consequently a pre-programmed device ready for fine tuning is out of the question.  This sounds remarkably similar to the issues and challenges overcome by the teams training rats to push buttons using brainwaves, as mentioned on my blog posting from the 10 March this year 'Leave the Mouse, Get a Rat.'  So, for brainwave controlled activities we're about as effective as rats.  That's reassuring.

Samsung have been working with MIT to develop this technology further  using a headset bristling with EEG measuring electrodes.  Think of a swimming cap with a poor man's dreadlocks and you get the idea.  Hooking up to one of their Galaxy tablets they've had a fair bit of success in selecting and launching apps.  As one commentator states, thought controlled technology will be a boon for those with mobility issues, and persons suffering with illnesses such as Locked In Syndrome may have some relief.  Looking beyond low hanging fruit such as that, it also presents a wealth of opportunities for those of us lucky enough to not be classed as disabled.

Controlling the TV and the DVR by thought control has to be an aim, although the resulting carnage in houses up and down the country needs to be considered as TV channels are changed in the literal blink of an eye.  Adding an extra input dimension to operating your computer has to be an objective, too.  As we demand more from our programs, the need to manipulate needs more than a virtual extra pair of hands.

Part of the tests carried out at MIT is using the thought control to manipulate a music player, getting the human equivalent of the lab rat to select, play and pause classical music tracks.  At present the accuracy of such tests is between 80% and 95%, which isn't perfect - I would expect around 98% accuracy using conventional controls by persons familiar with the software.  However it is probably a lot better than most would expect.  The researchers are very happy with the results and are looking at ways to make the headsets more convenient, such as replacing the current wet electrode requirement with a dry electrode.

It's early days, but if a viable range of controls are developed then maybe the sensors will be fitted subcutaneously, allowing computers and other devices to be controlled just by thought.  Like Google Glass, this technology has the potential to change the game permanently and my guess is the days of clunky rubber headgear are limited.  For this application, anyway. The technology will undoubtedly develop faster as the results improve, and I expect the progress to increase in leaps and bounds as the capability is realised.  And of course it's not just Samsung looking onto this technology, IBM have a research project working on it, so we're looking at some heavyweight research going on.

In my opinion, if any technology is worth thinking about, this is it.


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