A group of medical and robotics researchers in Lausanne, Switzerland recently demonstrated a new remote interface system that allows partially paralyzed individuals to control robots entirely through mental commands. Though similar to research conducted in Germany and America, the greatest coup of this particular project is that the interface doesn’t require users to have received invasive brain implants — a great boon when dealing with patients who may already be suffering from a host of other medical issues.
On Tuesday, a team at Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne used only a simple head cap to record the brain signals of Mark-Andre Duc, who was at a hospital in the southern Swiss town of Sion 100 kilometers (62 miles) away.
Duc’s thoughts — or rather, the electrical signals emitted by his brain when he imagined lifting his paralyzed fingers — were decoded almost instantly by a laptop at the hospital. The resulting instructions — left or right — were then transmitted to a foot-tall robot scooting around the Lausanne lab.
Duc, who lost control of his legs and fingers after a bad fall, says that using the new interface to control the robot isn’t all that difficult, except when he’s experiencing great pain. That comes from Duc himself who was interviewed by an AP reporter via a webcam attached to the robot he was controlling.
When asked about what issues the team has discovered with the new technology, Jose Millan, leader of the research team, claimed that pain and other distractions (whether internal or external) were the team’s greatest hurdles. Anything that causes a patient’s mind to wander can interfere with control of the ‘bot. At this point in its development, the interface requires almost total concentration from the patient in order to function correctly. In fact, while discussing how the interface functions, Millan makes it sound rather similar to a wi-fi connection. “Sooner or later your attention will drop and this will degrade the signal,” he says of the issues facing patients who experience near-constant physical pain.
This development is a step forward in the quest to give paralyzed individuals the sort of autonomy taken for granted by those with full a full complement of functioning limbs, though the team is careful not to promise any widespread benefits in the near future. While promising, Millan himself says that the device likely won’t see widespread use for another few years. Hopefully that will give the researchers time to work out the machine’s kinks.