Musical instrument can read your mind, play songs

A brain-computer interface allows for jam sessions without lifting a finger.

We've all had moments where we heard a song playing in our heads. Now a new technology allows our brains to go a step further and perform music simply by thinking.

The brain-computer interface, developed by Eduardo Miranda of the University of Plymouth, UK , is similar to other "mind reading" devices that have enabled users to type out messages and drive cars literally without lifting a finger.

The device consists of a wired up EGG cap embedded with brain wave detecting electrodes, all of which are connected to a computer. In this case, the system is equipped with specialized software and jamming speakers. Generally, these interfaces were created so that disabled people can perform common tasks without the use of limbs and the musical interface was designed for the same purpose.

Mind training is also required to get the machine in tune with the user's intentions. The publication Nature, which reported on the technology, describes the training process:

The trick is to teach the user how to associate particular brain signals with specific tasks by presenting a repeating stimulus — auditory, visual or tactile — and getting the user to focus on it. This elicits a distinctive, detectable pattern in the EEG signal. Miranda and his colleagues show several flashing 'buttons' on a computer screen, which each trigger a musical event. The users push a button just by directing their attention to it.

For example, a button could be used to generate a melody from a preselected set of notes. The user can alter the intensity of the control signal – how 'hard' the button is pressed – by varying the intensity of attention, and the result is fed back to them visually as a change in the button's size. In this way, any one of several notes can be selected by mentally altering the intensity of pressing.

With a little practice, this allows users to create a melody as if they were selecting keys on a piano. And, as with learning an instrument, say the researchers, "the more one practices the better one becomes."

Researchers tested the technology with the help of a paralyzed patient at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London. Within a couple hours, she was able to play songs with a back ground track.

At the end of the session, she told researchers that "it was great to be in control again."

Photo: University of Plymouth

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