Technology puts mind over body

Disabled people can communicate and operate electronic devices just with the power of thought

Quadriplegics face many obstacles, such as full or partial loss of movement and/or speech, but new technology called the Brain Computer Interface (BCI) could improve the quality of life for victims by responding to brain signals and enabling control of certain electrical devices.

A member of staff demonstrates how the Brain Computer Interface technology can help quadriplegic people control wheelchairs by recognising commands triggered by thought.

The BCI response is becoming ever more realistic thanks to continuing work at the Brain Computer Interface Lab Department of Biomedical Engineering Principle Researcher, Center of Biomedical and Robotics Technology, Mahidol University.

Lab director Yodchanan Wongsawat, speaking after the Thailand seminar on Broadband Deployment and Universal Service Obligation, organised by the Telecommunications Research and Industrial Development Institute (Tridi) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), said BCI recognises brain signals and uses them to control electrical or communication devices and can even assist in repairing human cognitive or sensory-motor functions.

The technology use sensors to detect brain activity and amplify signals, which can then be processed into messages or commands to aid decision-making.

Yodchanan Wongsawat, Director of the Brain Computer Interface Lab.

This information is sent wirelessly to a receiver. Currently, the lab has developed a prototype of "iThink 2", the second version of BCI which helps to control electrical devices via brain signals.

The three year projects, developed with funding of 5.8 million baht from Tridi, are aimed at developing solutions to allow severely disabled people to use their thoughts to operate a "visual stimulation unit" _ a virtual remote control _ which could be used to operate home electronic devices such as televisions.

When users look at the visual remote control, the sensor can detect their instructions via EEG electrodes and an EEG amplifier and then transmit their brain activity to a receiver that converts analogue signals to digital.

This process, known as Pattern Recognition Algorithm, then wirelessly sends the user's instructions to the target devices over a range of around 20 to 30 metres.

"We need to further develop the visual stimulation unit so that brain signals are strengthened and commands are processed quicker," said Yodchanan.

"We also need to spend more time training users. Our goal is to achieve an accuracy rate of 90 to 95 percent."

The lab is also working on a prototype of a wheelchair that can be controlled using BCI technology.

In this model, the sensor will detect brain signal activity and connect this with an amplifier and control box to operate the wheelchair's joystick.

In initial tests, the BCI wheelchair has seen an average usage time of one or two hours before brain signals weakened or users became too tired. The next step is to conduct clinical trials of the device, and then to negotiate pricing with manufacturers. Yodchanan hopes the wheelchair, which will be the first of its kind in Thailand, will be sold for 20,000-30,000 baht.

As well as controlling wheelchairs and home devices, the BCI technology can be applied to many other areas, such as facilitating writing by enabling the user to select letters and other targets on a computer screen without any muscular movement, or to remotely control games, robotic arms or other electronic movements.

Meanwhile, Professor Dr Toshio Obi, Director of the Waseda University's Apec e-Government Research Center in Tokyo, added that there is a need for governments to expand mobile broadband development by targeting a broader range of rural citizens with diverse information needs, ranging from mobile commerce, agriculture and education to government issues, healthcare and disaster reduction.

In his view, the use of mobile technologies for disaster reduction is important because research shows that 80 percent of people injured in such incidents will be the elderly and/or disabled.

Senator Monthian Buntan said that expanding broadband would require focusing not only on universal access across all geographical areas, but also on improving human functions.

For example, to ensure accessibility for all, products and services should have a universal design; and assistive technologies for special needs persons should be provided.

"Information communication technology which assists senior citizens, pregnant women, disabled people or those with impaired speech will has huge business potential," said Senator Monthian.

"Whether in the analogue or digital world, inclusive technology will help bring us all closer together."

National Telecommunications of Thailand (NTC) has announced a telecommunication equipment standard draft that has to support a public telephone standard, according to Torpong Selanon, at the NTC.

The standard mainly covers universal design that facilitates equal access use for all, including disabled and senior citizens, such as bigger displays, space for wheelchair access, and so on.

Next year, Torpong expects that 10,000 public telephones across Thailand will comply with this standard. NTC is also aiming at establishing a design standard for fixed lines and mobile phones so that keyboard typing is a feature on all handsets.

Article 27 of the recent NBTC bill supports equal access, while Article 50 mentions a plan for universal service sand accessibility for telecommunication for any group of people, regardless of geographical location or disabilities and other human factors.

Furthermore, Article 52 NBTC supports assistive technology for underprivileged, disabled and senior citizens.

In Thailand, around 1 million disabled people are registered with the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, although the National Statistical Office estimates there is a total of 2 million disabled people and 6 to 7 million elderly people nationwide.

NTC has also allocated 18 million baht to set up a Telecommunication For Disabled and Elderly People Showcase Centre in collaboration with Nectec under the Ministry of Science and Technology. This centre will provide all assistive technologies available on the market to increase awareness of such devices and services, and will also take a mobile roadshow of the same into communities.

About the author

Writer: Suchit Leesa-nguansuk
Position: Senior Reporter