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April 23, 2013

Can Samsung Really Use Brain Waves to Control a Tablet?

The simple answer is yes. Though still entirely in the experimental stage, Samsung has developed a means to capture brain wave patterns generated from user thoughts, send the captured signals to a tablet, then utilize software to uncode and translate them and create commands from them suitable to controlling the mobile tablet device itself. The way it basically works involves wearing a brain wave scanning cap that feeds signals directly to an app running on the tablet. As the app converts the signals, the user is able to directly control the tablet's functions.

The immediate benefit to such a thing that one is likely to think of, of course, is what can “I” do with it? Imagine simply looking at your TV and having it turns on and change to a specific channel, or controlling the light dimmer in a room. How about composing an E-mail just by thinking it? Or having your mobile device or laptop perform whatever tasks you might need accomplished in the same manner? Indeed it certainly might make for a more productive environment.

But perhaps the way to really think about it is to focus not on those things that most of us are already able to do with our hands, but instead to focus on the benefits that those among us who suffer from significant physical impairments – perhaps inherited, perhaps due to an accident or to a disease – might be able to gain from such a capability. And indeed, this is what Samsung is currently focusing its R&D efforts on for the technology. It would certainly be a significant step forward from today’s eye-tracking types of technology.

Insoo Kim, Samsung’s lead researcher on the project and his team are working on the technology in close collaboration with Roozbeh Jafari, assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas. Kim points out that the research, though extendable to any type of device, is being targeted at developing additional ways to interact specifically with Samsung’s mobile devices. Kim notes that today’s technology easily allows users to interact with their devices through voice and touch/gesture controls.

And of course with the new Samsung Galaxy S4 Samsung introduces eye movement tracking as well to control and interact with S4 applications. With the first iteration of the S4 users will be able to, for example, pause and resume playing videos simply by having the S4 detect if and when a user is or is not looking at the screen. But Kim says that Samsung is now looking to move beyond these established capabilities - and the company is looking to move beyond them in major new ways. Certainly being able to do so using brain wave scanning qualifies as a “major new way” to control a device.

Even more specifically, the Samsung research team is testing how to utilize brain wave scanning to accomplish powering up or shutting down a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 – the company’s state of the art large tablet. The research also includes launching applications, selecting a contact and such things as selecting a song from a playlist. These sorts of commands may sound trivial but for many physically impaired people accomplishing even these sorts of tasks remains virtually impossible.

The EEG Cap

The current state of the technology requires using a cap wired with EEG electrodes. It may very well remind some of us of The Matrix and “jacking in” to altered reality programs. EEG refers to an electroencephalogram – which the Mayo Clinic does a pretty good job of defining if you need a refresher on it. It is a completely non-invasive process that essentially detects electrical activity within your brain. The Samsung EEG cap (a variation of other available such EEG scanners) is shown below.

There are a number of devices that use EEG to read brain waves already. Among them are NueroSky’s Mindwave Mobile and Emotiv Systems – both of which offer lightweight headsets that are able to read EEG signals and communicate wirelessly. Neither of them looks in any shape or form like the Samsung EEG cap. One can speculate that eventually the EEG cap may end up looking like something along the lines of the NueroSky or Emotive hardware.

We note here that for Samsung, the EEG cap isn’t an end product. It is a tool to capture the brainwaves that are then sent on to the tablet. To use EEG-detected brain signals to control a mobile device the joint research team Samsung and UT Dallas researchers have focused their efforts on monitoring established brain activity patterns that emerge when study subjects are shown various repetitive visual patterns. So far the teams have managed to demonstrate that it is possible to actually launch an application and as well to be able to take various actions and make selections from several choices by doing nothing more than focusing on a specific icon blinking at a specific frequency.

The key here is to generate repeatability of the resulting brainwaves, which are then translated into specific commands. In a sense the user develops a “vocabulary” of brainwave patterns based on the blinking images.

Part of the research – in particular that being conducted by Jafari’s University of Texas team, focuses on developing greatly improved sensors that can detect the necessary brainwave patterns from what will otherwise be an enormous collection of EEG noise. To do so requires developing – or attempting to develop – better sensor technology that will work with “dry” electrodes. Current technology requires having wet contacts and fairly extensive setup – not exactly the sort of technology that is maintenance free or easy to deploy, and maintenance free and dry are critical goals that need to be achieved to enable daily use by movement impaired people.

Of course such technology can also conceivably be utilized to control smartphones and tablets wirelessly (likely through Bluetooth), though Wi-Fi could conceivably be an option at some point. For Samsung, being able to demonstrate innovation for its mobile devices makes this a “mobile” project of sorts. But there is no inherent reason it has to apply specifically to mobile devices. As we noted at the beginning of our story, any electronic device is fair game once the underlying systems are established.

MIT Technology Review gets credit for uncovering the original story. For those motivated to see the current state of the EEG capabilities described here in action, Technology Review provides a very interesting video.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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