Wow, is this a taste of the future, or what? Check out MindWalker — an exoskeleton that will soon enable paralysed and locked-in people to walk using only their mind. Ah, who are we kidding — we're ALL going to eventually want this for ourselves!
The groundbreaking device, which is currently under review by the European Commission, consists of three main elements: The exoskeleton itself, a virtual-reality user interface, and the mind-reading component. It was developed by a consortium of several major universities and companies.
Users control the MindWalker using an EEG cap that measures electrical activity at various points across the scalp. There are a number of different ways to control the exoskeleton in this way, but the best model involves wearing a pair of glasses with flickering diodes attached to each lens.
New Scientist's Helen Thomson explains:
Each set of diodes flashes at a different frequency in the wearer's peripheral vision. The light is processed by an area of the brain called the occipital cortex. Measurements from this part of the brain can detect whether [Thomas Hoellinger of the Free University of Brussels] is concentrating on the left diode or the right. He shows me how concentrating on the left starts the exoskeleton walking, while concentrating on the right stops it. All this happens in under a second.
Frustratingly, the exoskeleton often generates electrical noise which interferes with the EEG signal, making it unreadable. But the developers have a temporary fix:
So instead of mind control, [paralyzed patient Antonio] Melillo is walking by moving his upper body. As he leans left, a pressure sensor just above his buttock registers the movement and moves the opposite leg of the exoskeleton. He repeats the process on the other side to begin walking. "It's great, such an amazing sensation," he says. "Not just walking but even being able to stand upright."
Two days after my visit, the team identified flickering frequencies that are less affected by the mechanical noise and filmed a researcher controlling the exoskeleton with his mind alone.
Image: MINDWALKER Consortium.
Looking ahead, the developers hope to create a lightweight version that can be incorporated into a pair of pants. They’re also hoping to find a more elegant solution to replace the clunky glasses and the flashing diodes.
More at New Scientist — including a very cool video where you can see both techniques being used.
Images: New Scientist.