Unlike other brain control interfaces that require implants, the Italian and Swiss system uses a non-invasive brainwave headset to interpret a user’s thoughts. The user tells the robot where to go by imagining the movement of their hands and feet. These movements are associated with specific commands such as forward, backward, left, or right. A software system then receives the incoming signals and converts them into commands that the robot understands.
More than just a mindless piece of metal, the robot is a rolling platform with a mount for a laptop and a camera that allows the user to see the robot’s surroundings as it moves. It is there to make it easier on the user, who only has to issue the overall commands and does not have to deal with frustrating minutiae such as moving around an obstacle. Instead, the robot relies on its nine onboard sensors to change its trajectory and move around obstacles while still obeying the user’s overall commands. Users also can talk to anyone they encounter using Skype, which is pre-installed on the machine.
Researchers tested the robot by recruiting both disabled and non-disabled adults and asking them to steer it though an obstacle-filled room. Both groups successfully finished the course, and did so in a similar amount of time. Researchers are hopeful the technology could provide disabled people with more independence in their homes, but they don’t expect it will be available commercially anytime soon.
In the meantime, the team plans to refine the brain-computer interface so it is more general in its application. “If we develop a system which can then be used easily by everybody, just like a cell phone, this would push the brain-computer interface technology wide open,” said EPFL research scientist Robert Leeb.