On the Brain: Avatars, and other mind-controlled machines
Olaf Blanke conducts experiments on virtual reality, perception and consciousness.
February 17th, 2011
01:52 PM ET

On the Brain: Avatars, and other mind-controlled machines

Some mind-bending research on how the brain interacts with machines kicked off the press meetings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference Thursday in Washington, D.C. Here are some of the ideas presented there:

A step toward "Avatar"

How do you know that your body is your own? Neurologist Olaf Blanke at the University of Geneva and the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland discussed an unpublished study in which participants were put into a virtual reality environment and assumed the body of an avatar. An electrode-studded skullcap monitored brain activity. In the experiments, researchers tested what would happen if male participants controlled female avatars and if a first-person perspective were changed to third-person, as well as other activities. He and colleagues found that the sex of the avatar doesn't matter; if you're inside an avatar, you think it's your own body, and whatever happens to it is happening to you.

Robots at your doorstep

When the mind is intact but the body has movement problems, trying to use technologies such as brain-powered wheelchairs and neuro-prosthetic limbs can be exhausting for the user, researchers say. That's why José del R. Millán and his colleagues at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne are developing a system that learns the mental intentions of the user. They are working toward creating a robotic system that the user would control with thoughts to interact with the world at a distance; for instance, a robot that would have a camera on it so that a patient and family members could see each other and interact. Right now the researchers can determine when a person wants to deliver intentional mental commands. Ultimately, they would like the user to be able to maintain mental control of the device while also deciding whether the robot should go, grasp objects and do other tasks, so that the user can mentally relax somewhat.

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