Can technology give people with severe physical disabilities, like quadriplegia, more independence in everyday life? How about for something as routine as watching TV? Samsung believes it is possible. In fact, the South Korean conglomerate has developed a prototype that makes it possible to operate a Samsung Smart TV only with the brain. So, basically, the space between your ears acts as the remote control allowing you to change channels and adjust sound volume.
Samsung's Swiss operations started work on this civic initiative, called Project Pontis, three months ago in partnership with the Center of Neuroprosthetics of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. CNET reported that the company demoed its second prototype TV just last week, at its annual developer conference in San Francisco.
So how did Samsung go about building this futuristic brainwave-controlled TV software? The first step is to collect a sample of how the brain behaves when the user wants to do something, say, select a movie. Samsung and EPFL combined indicators from the environment as well as brain scans to build a model and apply machine learning to let the user select shows using eye movements (tracking) and brainwaves.
To collect the brainwaves in the prototype, a user wears a headset covered with 64 sensors while looking at an eye tracker. The headset is connected to a computer that's mirrored to the TV. According to the report, the current prototype uses eye tracking to determine when a user has selected a particular movie. The system then builds a profile of videos the user gravitates toward, which makes it easier to provide lists of content in the future.
Samsung and EPFL are also working on a system that goes a step further and relies on brain signals alone. That would be helpful for users who aren't able to control their eyes or other muscles reliably, Ricardo Chavarriaga, a senior scientist at EPFL, who's working on the project with Samsung, told the website. He added that currently the technology has to be tailored to each person because of the variations in our brains.
"Samsung initially considered building the technology into a smartphone but opted for the TV in part because of its bigger screen and because most homes have a TV," Martin Kathriner, head of public affairs for Samsung Electronics Switzerland GmbH, told CNET. He added that TVs also can be used as smart home hubs, which could be attractive for the brainwave technology.
Samsung plans to work on its second prototype through the first quarter of 2019 and subsequently start tests in Swiss hospitals to gauge patients' reactions to the prototype. Of course, it's early days yet for the project. According to CNET, there are limitations with the current hardware. Also, the sensor helmet requires a layer of gel applied to the head, something consumers likely aren't going to do at home.
Incidentally, Samsung is not the only company trying to use brainwaves to control devices. In March 2017, SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk launched Neuralink, a company dedicated to creating "neural lace", which involves installing tiny electrodes in the brain to transmit thoughts. Besides, neuroscientists the world over have been researching ways to make a digital interface for the brain.
So although Brain-Computer Interface technology is still very nascent, it might one day replace touch screens and voice assistants in devices. And make everyday life easier for the differently-abled.