Tiny Movements and Big Technology
Italian researchers at the Milan Polytechnical Institute have recently come forward with a revolutionary technology that was almost 30 years in the making. It's called Brain Computer Interface. Back in 1980, scientists all over the world began working to develop the concept, which is basically a way for people to manipulate a computer with mental concentration. The particular sort of Brain Computer Interface presented by the Milan Polytechnical Institute is for a wheelchair, which they have created over the past three years. The machine would enable someone without the use of body parts to direct the wheelchair to different rooms of their house. The process is this: The person in the wheelchair is connected to the chair's computer by means of electrodes attached to their scalp. They then concentrate on where in the house they would like to go, and the computer interprets the signal and displays the location on the monitor. Each potential location would be programmed into the computer beforehand, and the chair itself uses laser beams to detect and avoid obstacles. Hopefully, a commercial version of the wheelchair Brain Computer Interface will be available to the public (with an aim toward quadriplegics) within five to 10 years.
The team is also devising a wheelchair that can work outside with a GPS system. There are technologies other than Brain Computer Interface trying to enable people with the use of very few body parts. For example, Tongue Drive is a system out of Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The system operates by the attachment of a tiny magnet to the tongue, and the tongue's movements then directing a cursor on a monitor via magnetic field sensors inside or outside of the mouth. Tongue Drive could be used for a wheelchair. The benefits of a device controlled by the tongue are that it utilizes a muscle that can make fast, accurate movements, and is rarely damaged by spinal cord injuries and neuromuscular diseases. The Brain Computer Interface wheelchair is a large advancement in biotechnologies, and would be expected to cost an unfathomable amount. However, the chair will only cost about 10 percent more than a standard motorized wheelchair currently on the market, according to the Milan Polytechnical Institute. This could mean great changes for people who have only been able to use the smallest parts of their bodies, as well as their caretakers. Such enabling technology might allow them to renter parts of society that before seemed off limits.