March 31, 2009, 9:05 AM — The research wing of Honda Motor has co-developed a brain machine interface (BMI) system that allows a person to control a robot through thought alone.
The system, which was developed with the Japanese government-affiliated Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International and precision equipment maker Shimadzu, builds on previous work announced three years ago towards a possible future where devices can be controlled by thought.
In 2006 Honda and ATR researchers managed to get a robotic hand to move by analyzing brain activity using a large MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner like that found in hospitals.
The latest work is a step more advanced and measures the electrical activity in a person's brain using electroencephalography (EEG) and blood flow within the brain using near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) to produce data that is then interpreted into control information. It requires no physical movement.
The system was not demonstrated on Tuesday but Honda did release a video of experiments. It shows a controller sitting in a chair with a large hemispheric scanner over his head, like the sit-down hair dryers you find in hair salons.
Both the EEG and NIRS techniques are established but the analyzing process for the data is new. Honda said the system uses statistical processing of the complex information to distinguish brain activities with high precision without any physical motion.
In the video, the controller is shown one of four cards -- right hand, left hand, foot and tongue -- and asked to visualize making a corresponding movement. After being shown the card for the right hand he visualizes moving that hand but physically remains completely still. After an indeterminable period Honda's Asimo robot, to which the system is hooked-up, raises its right hand.
Honda claims a 90 percent success rate using this method to correctly analyze thoughts.
The video starts off by proposing a world in which air conditioners will automatically come on when people in the room think its too hot, where car doors open when owners approach with arms loaded with shopping and where homeowners can think about tasks that need to be done and robots interpret the thoughts and get on with the jobs.
That day is clearly a long way off but with the latest development the system makes a big jump from being fixed to portable. It's impossible to move an MRI machine around but the computer attached to the scanner, while large, is in theory portable. The entire machine, scanner and chair appears to take up about the same amount of space as a small car.
ATR and Honda began research into BMI technology in 2005.