AP/Koji Sasahara
A Honda employee wears headgear to control Honda’s Asimo robot during a demonstration on
March 31, 2009.

Recent Advances in Brain-Wave Technology

July 01, 2009 07:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
Toyota’s new brain-controlled wheelchair is just one of many advances in brain-machine interface technology.

Toyota’s Brain-Controlled Wheelchair

Toyota unveiled Monday a new brain-machine interface that enables subjects to control a wheelchair using only their brain. Subjects are fitted with a cap that places five electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes on the skull, which measure electrical currents in the brain.

“After a week of training for three hours a day, subjects were able to turn the wheelchair right or left by thinking of their corresponding hand or foot and to move the chair forward by thinking of the scene ahead,” declared a Toyota press release.

Toyota reports that the technology has a success rate of 95 percent, and the response from thought to motion is just 125 milliseconds. A video of Monday’s demonstration is available from Riken.

EEG tests have been used for years in the medical field to detect problems in a brain’s electrical activity such as epilepsy or dementia. The technology is now being used to create brain-machine interfaces that can control objects.

Honda’s Robot

In March, Honda unveiled a brain-controlled robot that utilizes EEG and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), which measures cerebral blood flow. EEG and NIRS sensors are attached to the users’ head in the form of a helmet, allowing the user to command the robot to perform four simple tasks with a 90 percent success rate, the “world’s highest level,” according to Honda.

Honda is still “decades” away from creating a robot that could be used in everyday life, reported BusinessWeek, and “there is a delay of about seven seconds between thinking the command and Asimo's doing it.”


EEG technology is now being applied to toys, with two companies set to release brain-controlled games onto the market in the fall. Lucas Licensing has unveiled the Force Trainer, a “Star Wars”-themed game that “comes with a headset that uses brain waves to allow players to manipulate a sphere within a clear 10-inch-tall training tower,” reported USA Today.

Mattel has created a game called Mindflex that enables a player wearing a headset to move a small foam ball around a miniature obstacle course. CNET was recently allowed to test the game, and it presents a video of writer Scott Stein playing it. “Concentrating on anything other than the ball produced big ball drops, so to speak,” writes Stein.

Artificial Limbs

Scientists continue to make breakthroughs in motorized artificial limbs controlled by moving muscles that would have been used to move the lost limb. As seen in a recent feature on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” this technology has advanced to the point where a test subject can pick a grape and eat it using only his artificial arm.

Creating a limb controlled by brain activity is far more complex, but there have been advances. Last year, a monkey with probes inserted into its primary motor cortex was able to feed itself using prosthetic arms.

The monkeys’ brains seem to have adopted the mechanical appendage as their own, refining its movement as it interacted with real objects in real time,” reported The New York Times.

“This moves the day when patients disabled after spinal cord injuries or amputations can use brain-controlled bionic limbs from the realm of science fiction towards science fact,” said Paul M. Matthew, professor at London’s Hammersmith Hospital, to the BBC.

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