Imagine: You’re paralyzed from the neck down, a full-on quadriplegic with what doctors refer to as a “high level spinal cord injury.” How do you get around? There’s your voice, of course, which can drive speech-recognition software, and you may have heard about mouth-driven navigation tools, where you use your tongue to manipulate a joystick that steers the chair. But what if someone built an interface that could tell where you wanted to go with a simple blink?
Someone actually did: A team of researchers at Japan’s Miyazaki University wanted to devise an interface that allows someone to power and steer a wheelchair by engaging different facial muscles. Clench your teeth and the wheelchair goes forward (or again to stop). Blink with your left or right eye and the wheelchair turns in the corresponding direction. If that sound too good to be true, see the video up top, in which someone demonstrates the subtle but incredibly cool technology in action.
“The system is intended for people who are paralyzed from the neck down and people who are gradually losing the use of their muscles due to muscular dystrophy or ALS,” said the project’s lead, Hiroki Tamura, an associate professor at the University of Miyazaki. “People who can no longer use a joystick still want to move around independently. So we wanted to create a system for controlling an electric wheelchair using the expressive [facial] muscles, which remain functional at a relatively late stage of dystrophy.”
Tamura says the system initially allowed people to adjust the wheelchair’s speed with facial expressions, but ran into problems, so to allow navigation around obstacles, they built in a proximity sensor to automatically detect objects: When the wheelchair has an open run of space, it speeds up—when it detects an upcoming obstacle, it slows down, coming to a full stop when it’s within one meter of something.
When can you take one for a spin? Tamura says they’re still testing and refining this year, but that he hopes to partner with a business and develop a commercial version by next year. And where the prototype (shown in the video above) involves electrodes attached to the face, look for the commercial version to include a pair of wireless goggles (or just glasses) that can ergonomically turn your winks and blinks into driving instructions.
By Matt Peckham