(23/02/2012) In the 2009 film Surrogates, humans live vicariously through robots while safely remaining in their own homes. That sci-fi future is still a long way off, but recent advances in technology, supported by EU funding, are bringing this technology a step closer to reality in order to give disabled people more autonomy and independence than ever before.
From wheelchair-bound victims of car accidents to people suffering full-body paralysis or locked-in syndrome, millions of Europeans have some form of motor disability that restricts their ability to move, interact or communicate with others.
In recent years a variety of technologies have been developed to help people with such disabilities live more independent and autonomous lives. Now these technologies are being improved and combined into an innovative hybrid system that will enable users to operate a robot with their thoughts alone, interact in virtual environments, remotely control lighting, heating and other devices in their homes, and more easily communicate with friends and family.
'Our aim is to give people with motor disabilities as much autonomy as technology currently allows and in turn greatly improve their quality of life,' says Felip Miralles at Barcelona Digital Technology Centre, a Spanish ICT research centre.
Mr. Miralles is coordinating the BrainAble** project, a three-year initiative supported by EUR 2.3 million in funding from the European Commission to develop and integrate a range of different technologies, services and applications into a commercial system for people with motor disabilities.
The BrainAble team are working on advanced brain-computer interface (BCI) systems, ambient intelligence (AmI), virtual reality (VR) and other technologies that individually offer important benefits to people with disabilities, but which, when used in combination, promise unprecedented autonomy.
By combining BCI and other assistive technologies, the researchers have developed an application so a user can remotely control a robot with telepresence features. They can manoeuvre the robot around the house, perform different actions and even communicate with people, all while remaining in bed. Similar technology also enables the user to operate an avatar in a virtual reality environment, either to train them to control a wheelchair or robot in a real environment, or for social interaction.
Referring to the BrainAble project specifically, European Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes pointed out in December: 'Can you imagine the difference [this technology] could make? A new opportunity to regain independence, to express yourself, and once again be able to do the tasks that most of us take for granted.'
For example, in the case of people suffering from severe forms of paralysis and locked-in syndrome, BCI technology is often the only way they are able to communicate and interact. BCI systems use implants or headsets fitted with sensors to measure electromagnetic waves generated by the brain. Users are trained how to generate electroencephalography (EEG) signals that the system can translate into actions. With a BCI system, someone who may otherwise only be able to move their eyes can type a message to communicate, remotely turn on a light, ask for assistance, control a wheelchair or robot in the real world or an avatar in a VR environment.
Despite considerable progress in the BCI field in recent years, BCI systems remain slow - performing a single action can take several seconds. The BrainAble researchers are overcoming this drawback by embedding intelligence into their platform, so that the system understands the user's context and habits and can react proactively.
'If someone normally turns on the TV at 7 pm, then that option will be made available to them in a simplified way on the interface so they can access it more easily at that time. The system learns from users' habits and tries to understand the context in which they are using it,' Mr. Miralles explains. 'In addition, we are integrating ambient intelligence so we can passively monitor the EEG signals to determine how tired or alert someone is. If they are tired, then the interface can automatically be simplified so it is easier to use.'
For someone who has some motor abilities, BCI can be used in combination with other assistive computer interface technologies such as eye-tracking or EMG switches that respond to the electrical signals generated by even the smallest muscle movements.
'For example, a person in a wheel chair might use BCI to control the movement of the chair and then use a switch to open a door,' the project coordinator explains. 'This hybrid system offers a greatly enhanced user experience. The aim is to have an adaptable system that is fully customisable to the needs of each user. Some technologies are more useful to people with certain types of disability than others, and as people's circumstances change so too do their needs.'
The BrainAble platform also includes middleware that enables simplified access to social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which are becoming increasingly important tools in helping disabled people overcome social isolation.
'The regular Twitter or Facebook interfaces are too complicated to use with assistive technologies such as BCI. So we have written a layer between the assistive technology and the social network interface to facilitate use of the most important functionalities,' Mr. Miralles says.
The BrainAble team are combining all the technology and services in a prototype smart home that will showcase the full potential of their work. Crucially, they are closely adhering to smart home standards so that incorporating a new device or service - whether a heating controller or a social networking application - is as simple as plug and play.
The smart home demonstrator will in turn serve to promote the BrainAble results commercially.
'There is a lot of interest in this field of research, and I can envision competitive, mainstream products being on the market within five to seven years,' Mr. Miralles says.
Austrian project partner Guger Technologies is planning to incorporate the research results into its BCI products, including adding AmI features to create much more integrated systems. Meanwhile, Meticube, a Portuguese software firm and another Brainable partner, is interested in incorporating BCI and AmI features as a way to improve interaction with devices and services in smart homes, not just for people with disabilities but also for older people and other groups.
'There is a huge market out there for these sorts of technologies, not only people with severe motor disabilities. The elderly, in particular, stand to benefit from this research, and even gamers could use it once BCI technology becomes reliable and fast enough,' the BrainAble coordinator explains.
BrainAble received research funding under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The project was also selected to be an exhibitor at the recent Innovation Union Convention in Brussels.
BrainAble is being followed up by a new EU-funded project called BackHome, also coordinated by Barcelona Digital. BackHome will focus on using BCI technology not just for autonomy but also for rehabilitation and the remote monitoring of people with neurological disorders.
* 'Autonomy and social inclusion through mixed-reality brain-computer interfaces: connecting the disabled to their physical and social world'.