Image via Interaxon
Over the weekend, The New York Times tackled a topic that the geek world's been freaking out about for years: brain-computer interfaces. Whether through a headband that connects to your scalp or a chip that's implanted directly onto your brain, these devices give you the power of mind control. No, not Jedi mind tricks. Not that kind of mind control. You can literally control computers with your brain.
If you've never heard brain computer interfaces, you're probably thinking, "Holy shit," right now. You're right. You can't trick Imperial goons into letting you escape from town with a couple of fugitive droids, but this is, actually, Star Wars-level futurism here. And it already exists.
Just because it exists doesn't mean it works super well, though. Existing brain-to-computer interfaces offer only very basic functionality. The one most geeks have heard of is the Emotiv headset, which the Times's Nick Bilton thinks "looks like a large alien hand [that wraps around your head] and can read brain waves associated with thoughts, feelings and expressions." The signal is only strong enough to play very simple games or, for instance, to display Flickr photos based on what you're thinking about. It's also susceptible to hackers, we recently learned.
Things get serious when you open up the skull, though. (File that under obvious sentences of the day.) A team of Brown researchers have been churning out breakthroughs with their BrainGate project, an ongoing study that involves two paraplegics with brain implants that enable them to communicate with a computer and even more a robotic arm. The direct contact with the brain offers a much stronger connection between brain waves and the computer. It's actually incredible to watch, and it's only the beginning.
This sort of technology doesn't just appear out of nowhere. Brain computer interfaces have been in the works at least since the 1970s, when a team from UCLA started working on the idea with backing by everybody's favorite futuristic government agency, DARPA. What's significant about right now, however, is the pace of breakthroughs. It was only about four months ago that we saw the paraplegic BrainGate subject feed herself for the first time in a decade thanks to a brain computer interface. Now, Samsung has a brain-controlled tablet, and there's a wireless device that can implanted directly into your brain.
Meanwhile, everybody's trying to figure out how to bring this technology to market. For companies like Emotiv, it's a challenge at the moment thanks to the limited functionality. Competition in the sector is heating up, though, and the devices are getting better and better. A California company called NovaSky has been perfecting its headset for almost a decade, while Interaxon is winning more and more attention with its hip-looking Muse headset.
Okay so maybe "hip-looking" isn't exactly the right way to describe the Muse, but at least it doesn't look like an alien hand crushing your skull. The fact of the matter is that this wearable computing thing is hurdling towards us more quickly than we thought. If you thought Google Glass was cool, wait til they come out with Google Air, the computer you wear on the inside of your head.
Of course, all of these amazing creations will pale in comparison to the hypothetical invention of the brain-to-brain interface — that is, a device that enables you to connect your brain directly to someone else's brain. It's technology-powered telepathy. And it's actually not so hypothetical any more.