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This mind-reading tech helped a paralyzed violinist control a live orchestra

Activating Memory

Back in 1988, when she was a rising star in the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Rosemary Johnson was in a terrible car accident that left her in a coma for seven months, and a head injury caused brain damage that left her unable to speak or move. Her ability to make music was suddenly gone.

After 27 years with the belief she would never be able to do so again, violinist Rosemary Johnson has made music, thanks to an incredible piece of technology called a brain computer music interface, or BCMI, developed by a team of doctors and researchers at Plymouth University in the U.K.

The BCMI is an EEG headset that contains electrodes for monitoring brain activity, which knows where someone is looking on a screen. The screen shows patterns of different colored lights, which are actually musical notes or phrases, that the BCMI wearer focuses on to select. By concentrating harder, the speed and volume of the musical notes generated can be adjusted.

Except the music isn’t played by a computer or synthesizer. It’s played live, in real-time, by an orchestra. Using the BCMI, they’re remotely controlling an able-bodied musician to produce the notes selected using the power of their mind, all thanks to this astounding technology.

The affect it has on the patient, said Professor Eduardo Miranda, director of the program, is “Really very moving. The first time we tried with Rosemary we were in tears. We could feel the joy coming from her at being able to make music,” he told the Telegraph. He said that making it possible for people who cannot move to create music was, “the project’s greatest achievement.” Miranda produced a short documentary on the BCMI, and how the technology works, which you can see above.

The musicians playing are known as the Paramusical Ensemble, and the first piece of music recorded and created by the quartet and BCMI wearers will be played at a music festival in Plymouth during February. It’s called Activating Memory, and a preview can be heard below.

Although Rosemary Johnson is the latest person to use the BCMI to great effect, the project has been running for more than a decade, and Professor Miranda recently explained to CNN how the technology works. The headset measures eight different frequencies, and is so sensitive it knows which pulsating panel on the display the wearer is looking at, even if the differences between them are just a few hertz.

It takes 10-seconds for the music selected to be played by the orchestra, and although no musical skill is needed to use the BCMI, musical knowledge and talent is essential to producing something people will want to hear. Unfortunately, the technology is very expensive, with each station costing at least $15,000, so it’s unlikely to be in wide use very soon. However, the team wants to set up booths where the public can try it out, then upload the resulting composition to the Internet.

As for Rosemary Johnson, her 80-year-old mother Mary, who in the past helped Rosemary tap nothing more than a few chords on the piano, said the BCMI project has given her daughter new hope.

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Andy Boxall
Senior Mobile Writer
Andy is a Senior Writer at Digital Trends, where he concentrates on mobile technology, a subject he has written about for…
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