Wouldn’t it be nice to brew a cup of coffee in the morning just by thinking about it, or shut off the TV with a blink of an eye? So-called mind-controlled technology may help people accomplish these simple tasks by wearing, say, a sleep mask or pajamas embedded with sensors.
The technology involves a system of sensors like those used for picking up a person’s brain waves when taking electroencephalograms (EEGs), or a recording of electrical activity along the scalp. Recently, EEG sensors have been commercialized for gaming whereby a player can control what’s on the screen with the help of a sensor-mounted headset. Such sensors on the head are also being used to help patients with prosthetics control the movement of their artificial limbs.
IEEE Senior Member Dean Aslam [above], a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, is working with a team of neurologists and students to incorporate what he calls biomedical inexpensive micro systems (BIMS) into everyday applications. He has designed sensors that, when sewn into garments, can transmit a signal to a receiver placed in a device the user wants to control.
“I started working on mind-controlled technology to get students excited about engineering, and I wound up turning it into a full-fledged research program,” Aslam says. “I now have a workstation that includes a sewing machine for sewing sensors into baseball caps and other garments. We’ve also put together a host of gadgets programmed to be controlled by the mind using the micro system.”
He is currently working on commercializing the BIMS technology for use in clothing so that one day people will be able to control smart-home appliances simply by focusing on them.
INSIDE THE BRAIN
When a person concentrates on one object at a time, the brain’s prefrontal lobe, located just behind the forehead, starts to fire neurons, creating electromagnetic waves in the range of 0.3 to 60 hertz. This radiation is strong enough to induce voltages of 10 to 100 microvolts in EEG sensors placed on the skull.
Aslam, who has a background in micro and nano technologies, knew he had to design a sensor that was smaller and lighter than anything already on the market for EEGs.
He was able not only to reduce the size of the EEG sensor—normally about 20 millimeters in diameter—but also embed it in fabric. He designed the sensor to be a 110-micrometer-thick copper wire essentially the dimension of sewing thread. The sensor can be sewn into a hat, a headband, or even a shirt collar along with the miniscule BIMS containing an amplifier and transmitter.
The signal picked up in the by BIMS is then sent to another BIMS in the device to be controlled that’s equipped with a microcontroller. The controller can be programmed to do a variety of tasks, such as turn on an appliance, change the temperature setting in a room via a thermostat, or lower the volume of a TV set.
Although a person could focus attention on anything for the system to work because the brain will generate electromagnetic waves, Aslam says it’s best to concentrate on the task at hand for several seconds until it is completed.” He says a sensor could be made to detect eye movements, such as blinks, to produce the same results. Thus, combinations of attention level and eye blinks can provide a large number of control options for appliances.
As the technology advances, Aslam believes controlling devices around us could become automatic. For example, when a person falls asleep wearing sensor-embedded pajamas, sensors could detect the brain waves that dominate when we are in deep sleep—delta waves—and shut off the lights and television on their own.