The latest project focused on brain-controlled human-machine interfaces at the University of Malta is the development of a motorised bed that allows a person with restricted mobility to control it directly through brain signals. The project, called BrainApp, is financed through the FUSION fund of the Malta Council for Science & Technology.
The research team made up of Dr Tracey Camilleri, Prof. Kenneth Camilleri, Dr Owen Falzon and Ing. Rosanne Zerafa, members of the Department of Systems and Control Engineering and the Centre for Biomedical Cybernetics at the University of Malta, has teamed up with Maltese industrial partner 88.eu to integrate algorithms, programming and hardware into a complete system.
Motorised beds are typically controlled through a remote control, allowing the users to change the inclination of the back rest, foot rest and other sections of the bed as required. However, if a person has some impairment, such as due to a stroke or locked-in condition, using this remote would be impossible and these individuals have to constantly rely on the support of their carers.
The brain-controlled motorised bed has replaced this remote control with icons displayed on a tablet and an EEG headset that measures the brain activity non-invasively from the scalp of the user. The user attends to one of the icons and the system will automatically detect the icon being chosen to generate the associated bed function. All this without the click of a button.
The BrainApp team believes that brain control could become the new communication channel of the future. “Our experience and growing interest in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) provide an opportunity to innovate and break new ground. BCIs are expected to become a ubiquitous alternative means of communication and control not only for individuals with limited motor capabilities but also for healthy individuals.”
And they are not alone in thinking so; just last year, the US agency responsible for the development of military emerging technologies, DARPA, has funded an ambitious brain machine interface program intended to develop wearable devices to allow soldiers to communicate directly with machines. Facebook is also presently working on a non-invasive EEG headset for text generation from brain activity.
The question remains as to whether this technology has advanced well enough to make it practical for everyday use. Identification of the icons desired by the user can be achieved at over 90% accuracy. Several companies are developing EEG headsets that offer good and reliable brain signal quality and are claimed to be comfortable enough to be used for long hours. Combining this, with the growing interest of using brain signals as a means of control for digital games, has created a commercial drive to reduce the cost of these devices. These driving forces offer a promise that BCIs may soon be available for daily use.