Brain-Controlled Interface Gives the Disabled Reason To Smile

Freedom is a word of great relativity, and for the handicapped, it is often a very elusive concept. Communicating with others and the world around us is something most of us take for granted, but for many among us with motor  and other disabilities the inability to participate is a source of both stress and unhappiness.

Researchers develop a telepresence robot

Motivated to improve the lot of the handicapped, a team of Swiss and Italian engineers and scientists has developed a special telepresence robot, which will aid people with motor disabilities in navigating their space remotely using their brain power. The team includes researchers from departments within the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, and they describe their new system as 'shared control', as it allows the user and the robot to work in unison to achieve their joint goal.


Brain Controlled InterfaceBrain Controlled Interface

 In the words  of Robert Leeb, head research scientist on the project: "This design makes the robot easy enough to use that it could offer a practical way to give disabled people more independence...Imagine a human being lying in his bed at home connected to all the necessary equipment to support his life. With a telepresence robot, he could again participate in his family life."

How is this brain-controlled interface different from others?

Brain-controlled interfaces are not new per se, but their range of functions and purpose keep them dynamic and ever-evolving. This innovative robot can read brain signals when the wearer uses a  helmet that is fitted with an EEG signal tracker. Unlike other interfaces that may require implants, this system is non-invasive; a brainwave headset interprets a user's thoughts.

How does this brain interface work?

In simplest terms, the telepresence robot becomes the eyes and ears of the disabled adult. The robot itself is a laptop equipped with Skype software and a camera mounted on top of a rolling base. This permits the user who wears a skullcap, to chat remotely with others via the webcam on the laptop.


Telepresence RobotTelepresence Robot

The user concentrates and imagines the movement of his or her hands and feet, which are associated with specific commands that include: forward,backward, left or right. A software system converts brain signals into language the robot understands, enabing it to move in the desired direction. The results, chronicled in Towards Independence: A BCI Telepresence Robot For People With Severe Motor Disabilities, were published in a recent issue of the journal, Proceedings of the IEEE, a popular general interest publication covering electrical engineering and computer science topics.

The future of the telepresence robot

Still in prototype stages, the creators of the telepresence robot are in the process of improving and integrating other features, such as the ability of the robot to move on diverse terrains. Leeb is doubtful that his 'shared control' system for robots will make it to market any time soon because of the fact that other brain-controled interface devices are singular in purpose and lower in cost. The high quality sensors used in the shared control telepresence robot could be used in different applications, perhaps offsetting the steep costs.

In any case, this robot marks the crossing of a new threshold in health and medical care which considers more than just physical limitations. The feelings and silent needs of the disabled to be a part of a community picture are also finally addressed.

In what other ways do robots improve our daily lives?

Closing thoughts on disability:

Disability is a matter of perception. if you can do just one thing well, you're needed by someone. ~ Martina Navratilova