Digital Agenda for Europe
A Europe 2020 Initiative

BrainAble - Connecting the disabled to their physical and social world

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Brain Neural Computer Interface (BNCI) is a novel method of interacting with IT systems, bringing new possibilities to severely impaired people as our fiction character, Veronika. In effect, it is a direct communication pathway between brain and external devices. This blog tells you how it works.

My name is Veronika and I’m 22 years old*. I had a motorbike accident last year resulting in a spinal cord injury. This has profoundly changed my physical needs and reduced my ability to move by 90%. I’ve spent most of the last year at hospital undergoing neural rehabilitation and now I’m trying to get my daily life back to normal. I need constant assistance to carry out my daily routine such as moving around the house, studying, doing my homework, turning on and off the radio and TV, and calling a friend to chat…

Let me explain how BrainAble, an EU-funded project, is helping me to feel more independent and in control of everyday activities.

Lead by Felip Miralles, the head of eHealth R&D department of Barcelona Digital, the BrainAble project team researched, designed, implemented, and validated an ICT-based Human Computer Interface prototype. The system is composed of a Brain Neural Computer Interface (BNCI) environmental sensors, physiological sensors, virtual environments and Ambient Intelligence. BNCI is a novel method of interacting with IT systems, bringing new possibilities to severely impaired people as myself. In effect, it is a direct communication pathway between brain and external devices. I’ll tell you how it works.

This technology uses a weird cap fitted with sensors which react to the electrical signals of my brain. This has enabled me to select options by doing mental exercises such as fixing my gaze at a specific point. Then, BrainAble system can "read" these signals, process them and extract useful information so it can interact with my environment, turning on and off the TV and changing channels, switching on and off the lights, contacting my friends through Twitter and Facebook, or joining the BrainAble Virtual Community, which is a virtual space to meet new people just for a casual chat and share experiences.

Furthermore, BrainAble modeled a telepresence service that helps me better monitor what's happening in my house: A camera is installed in a mobile mini-robot which, under my guidance, can move around the house to show me spaces out of my direct sight, (I just need to remember to keep the doors openJ)

And here's an even better feature: the BrainAble system requires a training period so that users feel comfortable with this new way of communication; that’s why a Virtual Reality application, with an exact copy of my home, helped me be more comfortable when first trying out this technology. The “Virtual Home” shows me a precise and realistic representation of my immediate environment. When I interact with the virtual elements of the home through the bizarre cap, these actions have a similar effect in my real world! This is what the BrainAble researchers call “Virtual-To-Physical Gateways”.

Since BNCI requires a lot of attention I sometimes get tired... BrainAble system solves this by turning to what they call Affective Computing (nice term, isn’t?). So when I feel tired, the built-in fatigue switch helps me by suggesting a change in the way I interact with the systems: fixing eye gaze, imaging movements of my hands or detecting the electrical activity of my muscles.

The research team explained a lot of things about what is behind this nice system: the Ambient Intelligence - a set of configurable rules that allow the system to trigger automatic actions or suggest potential action based on my usual behavior (for example, when it gets dark the system will suggest I turn the lights on; when it knows I am not at home, the system will switch off the lights on its own); the Smart Home applications; what exactly a BNCI is; the Virtual Reality, a “world” where I can explore, socialise and decide what I want to look like; and communicate by chat or even transmit my emotions by using non-verbal expressions… Want to know more about it? Visit the project website: www.BrainAble.org

I will tell you more very soon. Stay tuned!

[*] This blog contents is a simulation user-case for dissemination purposes. BrainAble is not only about science, it is also about our fiction character, Veronika, and all the people in similar situations.]

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