Mind Control Made Simple
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed Jun 15 08:30:00 GMT 2005

A Silicon Valley startup is working on a system to give users the power to control a mobile device with the power of thought.


Over the years, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke has enriched popular culture with dozens of notable quotes, but his most famous line is, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Truer words were never spoken. If you were able to travel back in time to the middle ages and drive a Buick down the road, honking your horn as you passed the ox carts, it's likely you'd be taken for a wizard with the power to make horses invisible. Today, if you were able to control your mobile phone by thought alone, people might think you had telekinetic abilities.

But a company in Cupertino, California, called NeuroSky is proposing to do just that. It's developing a technology that uses electrical signals produced by the brain and eye movement to control electronic devices.

For centuries, people have known that the human body uses and produces electricity. In the 1708s, the Italian doctor Luigi Galvani conducted experiments on animal cadavers that demonstrated how a muscle would contract when an electrical charge was applied to the muscle or the nerve connected to the muscle. He rightly concluded that an animal's nervous system must generate its own electricity in order to send a signal to a muscle to make it move.

The Electric Brain

There was even more to it -- it turns out that animal brains are hotbeds of electrical activity. This can be plainly seen on a device called an electroencephalograph (EEG), which is a medical instrument designed to measure electrical activity generated when brain cells fire signals. The electrical signals produced by the brain are very weak, and signals become extremely faint by the time they penetrate the skull. To pick up these signals, the EEG instrument uses electrodes that are attached to the scalp. Electrodes are typically a messy affair. When I had an EEG test performed 30 years ago, I was given the choice of electrodes dipped in a sticky conductive gel that would have gummed up my hair, or tiny needles to prick my scalp. (I opted for the needles, which didn't hurt a bit).

NeuroSky's technology also uses electrodes to pick up the body's electrical signals, but things have progressed considerably since I went in for an EEG test. The company has a patented electrode called a "dry active sensor" that rests comfortably on the user's forehead and can pick up brainwaves. NeuroSky claims the sensor can be attached to most standard handsfree headsets.

States of Consciousness

The other component of NeuroSky's technology is a digital signal processor to analyze brainwave activity. It's well established that the human brain generates rhythmic electrical signals that are associated with different states of consciousness. During our normal waking hours, our brainwaves oscillate between 7 and 12 cycles per second. This is called the alpha state. When we are especially alert or interested (such as reading this intriguing article) our brainwave frequency increases to between 13 and 40 Hz (the Beta state). Deep relaxation is associated with Theta waves, which oscillate between 4 and 7 Hz, while sleep generates Delta waves of 0-4 Hz.

One of the intriguing possibilities for NeuroSky's technology is a sleep detector. If you were driving a car and started to fall asleep, the system could sound an alarm and wake you up. NeuroSky is working with partners, most notably China's Ziyitong Technology to develop a sleep-detector as well as systems for gaming and Attention Deficit Disorder.

Cause and Effect

But how can you actually control a device using your brain? Part of the answer lies in biofeedback -- training yourself to change the frequency of your brainwaves. For decades, people have been controlling their brainwaves using biofeedback monitors. By attaching electrodes to your scalp and looking at a realtime display of your brain activity, you can learn to change the frequency at will.

The other part of the answer is EOG (Electro-oculogram), or eye movement. While this isn't really using your mind to control the device, it is a fairly automatic way to generate a small electrical signal that NeuroSky's system can measure. The company says it has acquired proprietary algorithms originally developed in Russia that can covert and combine EEG and EOG signals into direction control -- useful for navigating a heads-up communication display in a car perhaps, or for training cross-hairs on a cartoon alien in a video game.

So far, the 17-employee company has received just $1 million from investors, but says it is working on taking in another $3 to $5 million in financing. Until then, if you want to control your cell phone with your mind, you'll have to ask Uri Geller.