A team of researchers from the University of Washington have developed a system that lets subjects play a two-dimensional video game without seeing, hearing, or sensing the game in any traditional way. Instead, their brains were stimulated by a magnetic coil at the back of their skulls, which guided the gamers around the virtual maps. The research may open new doors for noninvasive brain stimulation, prosthetics, and innovative virtual reality experiences.
“I would like to think of this project as an incredibly boring version of The Matrix,” UW graduate student and lead researcher of the study, Darby Losey, told Digital Trends. “We are taking information from a computer and encoding it directly into the brain. While the amount of information we can transmit is primitive, it is a first step toward bigger and better things.”
“Think of it as the sci-fi scenario of downloading content directly into your brain,” adds co-author and UW assistant professor Andrea Stocco. “Only, the content is very, very simple, and interactive.”
In the study, gamers were asked to navigate a series of basic mazes by either moving forward or downward, but they could only “sense” the map through transcranial magnetic stimulation, which generated little flashes of light called phosphenes in the subject’s visual field.
In contrast to brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that allow users to control things with their mind, the technique used by the UW researchers uses computer signals to inform the brain.
“Our work is actually the ‘reverse’ of a BCI,” Stocco says. “In fact, we call it a CBI, for Computer-to-Brain interface … In a normal BCI the user receives information with his or her senses, but controls the game with neural signals. In a CBI, the user receives information directly as neural signals, but controls the game with their normal user interface.”
When a subject encountered a phosphene, she was able to direct her character by selecting an action on a computer screen. The study demonstrated that subjects could make the correct move 92 percent of the time with the CBI connected, compared to just 15 percent of the time without any stimulation.
“Ideally, we could use this technology to provide sensory information that is not available to our normal senses, by translating digital signals into meaningful brain codes,” says Stocco. Once the technology is advanced, it may offer new avenues for certain prosthetics. “For instance, in the future a blind person could use a much better version of the device to ‘see’ by translating images from a camera into a neural signal,” Stocco says.
The technology may also be used as a unique approach to VR. “The brain is what ultimately creates our reality,” Losey says, “so if we can interface directly with the brain we can find ways to augment this reality. Traditionally, VR uses goggles to show a virtual environment. While primitive, we have shown that you can directly interact with a virtual environment using only brain stimulation.”
A paper detailing the study was published last month in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI.