Mind how you go: The amazing wheelchair… controlled by the power of thought

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By David Derbyshire

Scientists have developed a wheelchair controlled by the power of thought.

The robotic chair could revolutionise life for those with severe disabilities who are unable to use a conventional joystick.

It works by creating a three-dimensional picture of the area around it, with a laser scanner. This is displayed on a screen in front of the user.

     

To steer the chair, the user simply concentrates their thoughts on the part of the display where they want to go.

Electrodes in a skullcap then detect the brain activity of the users – and work out their destination.

Dr Javier Minguez, who developed the chair at the University of Zaragoza in Spain, said the volunteers took just 45 minutes to learn how to use the chair safely and accurately.

He is now working on a commercial version that is even easier to use.

‘The purpose of this work was to demonstrate the usability of the wheelchair,’ he told New Scientist magazine.

‘All the subjects successfully solved all the navigation tasks and learned how to deal with the device in a similar way.’

The chair is the latest device to be controlled by the power of thought.

Last month, car giant Honda unveiled a ‘mind reading’ helmet that can control the movements of a robot.

Similar helmets have been used to move a cursor on a computer screen and control a room’s lights, operate a telephone and manipulate a robotic hand.

The latest system uses a laser mounted on the front of a wheelchair to create a 3D map of its surroundings.

The image is constantly updated and displayed as a graphic on the chair’s computer screen.

Sensors on the wheels also keep track of the chair’s position as it moves around a room.

As the user looks at the screen, a blue dot flashes in sequence over each possible destination.

When the dot reaches the area where the user wants to go, their brainwaves change slightly.

These millisecond-long fluctuations in brain activity are picked up by the electrodes and the chair sets off.

The chair uses its map and sensors to steer itself around any obstacles or people in the way. The user can relax until he or she reaches the destination.

A study, due to be presented at the International Robotics and Automation Conference later this month, tested the chair on five volunteers.

Because each person’s pattern of brain activity is unique, the volunteers had to ‘train’ the chair using test images. They also learned how to control the chair on a virtual circuit.

The volunteers were able to steer the chair around a laboratory and an open space full of people.

Although the chair is not the first to be controlled by thoughts, it is the first that lets the owner plan a route and avoid collisions in real time.

The prototype is still far from perfect – and can only handle two thoughts every minute. However, faster and more sophisticated versions will follow in the next few years.

Volunteers have only tested the chair for two hours at a time – after which the wet gel used to fix the electrodes to the user’s head begins to dry up.

If the chair is to be used commercially, the researchers will need to find a new way of attaching the electrodes to the head of the owner.

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