This new wearable tech could let you control your TV by thought alone

A new device announced ahead of CES can capture and interpret your visual cortex. Hope or hype?

What is a brain-computer interface? Systems that allow humans to control or communicate with technology using only the electrical signals in the brains or muscles are fast becoming mainstream. Here's what you need to know.

Using the power of your brain to turn up the volume on the TV might be the sort of thing couch potatoes dream of, and it could soon be within their grasp. That is, according to neurotechnology startup NextMind, with the help of their new $399 brain-to-computer interface (BCI) wearable.

NextMind has announced that the device, which comes in the form of a small, round gadget that can be clipped on to the back of the head, will start shipping to developers and partners this month

nextmind-capclip.png

 The device comes in the form of a small, round gadget that can be clipped on to the back of the head.  

Image: NextMind

The concept behind the technology is similar to that of the electroencephalograms (EEG) that are currently found mostly in hospital rooms. Like EEGs, NextMind's device records the brain's electrical activity and "reads" the signals to understand what information is being sent to the body.

After capturing and translating brain activity, the technology transforms it into a digital command for compatible devices. If the user's brain sends a signal to change TV channels, for example, the wearable can directly trigger the action – with no need to use a remote control or even move their hand.

NextMind's CEO Sid Kouider unveiled the device last November, and explained that the wearable's eight electrodes measure the activity in one specific area of the brain – the visual cortex, which processes the information sent through our eyes.

"When you face several objects, the eyes project an image of these objects in the visual cortex," he said. "If you mentally decide to focus your attention on a specific object, it will be magnified in the cortex. The NextMind device can decode which object you are selecting, and send back the information to the display in real time."

This is how users can trigger commands such as play, pause, or turn up the volume, in this example on a TV display, simply by focusing their attention on the relevant part of the screen. 

Another potential application of NextMind's device is gaming: instead of using a controller, gamers could fire at opponents by just focusing on their target. Add a VR headset and it is easy to see how BCI could provide another degree of immersion to the whole experience.

But this type of application of NextMind's technology is still a thing of the future. Although Kouider demoed how the device could be used to control a TV set or a game, the company has called for developers to come up with new brain-controlled environments and applications

It still remains to be seen whether the new wearable will withstand the limitations that BCIs currently face – namely, the skin, hair and bone between the visual cortex and the device that weakens the strength of the electrical signals. 

"There are many obstacles," said Kouider, "but it's all about one thing: improving the bandwidth of the signal you can record from the brain." To do so, he told ZDNet, NextMind created a new device with two main innovations. 

The first one was improved sensors, using a "new material with increased sensitivity that can capture signals much better". But most importantly, the technology incorporates more sophisticated neural networks, which, combined with organic neural activity, can effectively interpret our brain data in real time.

SEE: Sensor'd enterprise: IoT, ML, and big data (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Andreas Schaefer, professor of neuroscience at University College London, who has been examining the development of BCI technology for a few years, told ZDNet: "NextMind's hardware looks like a great tool for gaming and the consumer market. However, while it might gather slightly higher bandwidth than previous consumer EEGs, as long as the electrodes are placed outside the brain, there's only so much you can get."

"I think most of the improvement comes from the algorithms that interpret the signals, which over the past years have been getting better, despite the limits of the hardware," he said.

As Schaefer pointed out, no further details of NextMind's technology were disclosed. But Kouider seems confident: "This is just the beginning for us, as we look forward to the future and further evolving this technology."

He is dreaming big: while NextMind's device can currently only decipher visual intent – where our mind focuses when presented with objects that we can see – Kouider believes that one day the technology could also read visual imagination. 

In other words, that the wearable could project what we imagine – the "real-life cinema inside your mind", as he calls it – onto a platform.

SEE: What is a brain-computer interface? Everything you need to know about BCIs, neural interfaces and the future of mind-reading computers

The idea is not an impossible feat, said Schaefer, but only to a certain extent. "You can probably reconstruct what a user is imagining, but only from a limited number of options – say, a flower, or a racket. This is why gaming, where you have a defined space, would be an interesting application," he said.

"But if I have no idea what you're imagining, and I put a headband around your head, I am skeptical that I could reconstruct what you are thinking exactly."

In the meantime, he added, there is a lot to look forward to: NextMind's call for partners to "play around" with BCI could lead to unexpected advances. Developers, to your tool kits.