Researchers from the Advanced Virtuality Lab at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, just got one step step closer to creating an actual Avatar-like computer interface. As in the Hollywood movie by James Cameron, this would mean that a human could control an ‘avatar’—in this case a robot not a cloned alien—remotely, and by thought alone.
Recently Ori Cohen and Doron Friedman enabled a human subject located in Israel to effectively direct the movements of a robot located nearly 3000km (1800mi) away at the Bèziers Technology Institute in France.
This experiment was associated with the Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-Embodiment (VERE) project whose stated aim is:
dissolving the boundary between the human body and surrogate representations in immersive virtual reality and physical reality. Dissolving the boundary means that people have the illusion that their surrogate representation is their own body, and act and have thoughts that correspond to this.
Currently there are a handful of consumer products available that allow users to control electronics using only their thoughts. Most rely on technology related to the electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures electrical fluctuations from brain activity across the scalp.
A few companies, such as Neurosky and Emotiv, sell headsets that can translate these signals into computer inputs for software. However, because EEG-based systems measure from the scalp there’s the problem of electrical ‘background-noise’ which lowers this method’s effectiveness. By using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which measures changes in blood flow in real-time, Cohen and Friedman were able to get a much more precise reading of brain activity.
They started out by using an avatar in a virtual environment, like Second Life, which could respond to input from the subject in the fMRI machine. Then the subject, Tirosh Shapira, was asked to imagine moving his right or left hand, then his feet, and eventually moving the avatar in a virtual space.
Once enough data was gathered on which regions of Shapira’s brain were corresponding to the different movements, the researchers could apply those inputs to controlling the robot.
Check out the video below for a more in-depth look:
This sort of technology has an incredible amount of potential applications in the real world. It could be enable paralyzed or otherwise immobile patients to control a ‘surrogate’ body or some sort of robotic exoskeleton. Of course there are obvious military uses as the ground soldier version of remotely controlled flying drones, or even just to control current drones. The fMRI method is still limited by how expensive the equipment is, and plenty of fine tuning needs to go into the program before exact motor control is possible. No doubt this breakthrough will open new doors in the field.
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