Imagine a Wii that lets you play a musical instrument with your brain without touching strings or a keyboard.
That’s exactly what this “proof of concept” brain-computer-music-interface (BCMI) is designed to do – it uses brain waves and eye movement to sound musical notes, so even a person with “locked-in-syndrome” could participate in creative activity analogous to learning to play a musical instrument. Developed by a team headed by Eduardo Miranda, a composer and computer music specialist from the UK’s University of Plymouth, the BCMI can be set up on a laptop computer for under $3,500 (including the computer). For people who are disabled, assistive technology usually aims at day-to-day functioning and largely ignores the unique aspect of being a human – creativity. This is different.
The Brain Computer Interface as an assistive technology
“Creativity – like human life itself – begins in darkness.” – Julia Cameron
No-one wants to even think about it but imagine a car crash or a stroke left you totally paralyzed and your only active movements were eye movements, facial gestures and minimal head movements. If you still retain full cognitive capacity, you would have what is called locked-in syndrome, a fate some might regard worse than death. For any person with a disability, one of the biggest obstacles is that people simply assume that if your body doesn’t work, then your brain is probably not capable of much either. How much worse is this for the person isolated by locked-in syndrome?
Historically, assistive technologies have relied on the person being able to maneuver at least one part of their body. For example, an Augmented Communication Device may require them to press buttons on a keyboard that has pre-designated questions, statements or responses. These devices can be adapted in order for the buttons to be pressed with a finger, a toe, or a metal-pointer attached to their head. Pretty impressive. But what about people with locked-in syndrome who aren’t capable of such motor function other than eye movements? Most of the technology has been simply passing them by.
Technology in the form of the brain computer interface (BCI) provides hope for these and many other people because we no longer have to imagine being able to use our thoughts to control a wheelchair or a communication device. In the past decade this technology has moved increasingly from fantasy into a reality.