Inventor Bringing Thought-controlled Robot Avatars to Quadriplegics
Imagine being trapped in a bed or stuck in a chair every moment of every day. A nurse stops in here and there and runs her finger over a picture of the alphabet, and you blink when her finger reaches the letter you want, to slowly spell out what you need to say.
This is the unfortunate reality of some quadriplegics, paralyzed in their limbs and torsos due to illness or injury tothe spine or brain. One inventor hopes to change this, however, backed by an army of tiny robots, and a headband of thought-reading electrodes.
Artificial intelligence programmer Robert Oschler is trying to fund the program he calls Robodance 5 through community-based fundraising website Kickstarter. The software would let quadriplegics control various robots to “not only explore their homes and contact their family members if something went wrong,” but also, through a network of other users, “they would be able to explore other people’s homes and environments which would free them from loneliness and isolation,” said Oschler in a phone interview.
Oschler is known for the robots that patrol his home when he’s away. Using earlier versions of Robodance, he can link up with the Wi-Fi-enabled bots from anywhere with an Internet connection and send them zipping through his home in search of trespassers or just for kicks. He has released free versions of Robodance annually for the past several years, but hit a brick wall with financing the latest version—which prompted him to turn to Kickstarter for funding.
Although he has a large collection of bots, any lively conversations with Oschler tends to drift towards the WowWee Rovio. Priced as a fancy toy, the bot functions as a mobile webcam that can be controlled from any computer with web access. The three-wheeled telepresence bot was released to the market with glowing ambitions—but with unfortunate bad timing—at the start of the financial downturn in 2008. The idea was to take it beyond just a cool camera-enabled remote-controlled car, and turn it into a digital avatar that users could link up to and visit loved ones, check on their homes while on vacation, or attend business meetings.
Oschler believes the features allowed by the bots could bring much-welcomed freedom to people otherwise left with little mobility. He has taken this a step further, however, and linked the bots up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) that can detect the subtle electric signals emitted from thoughts, and translate them into computer commands. His tool of choice is an Emotiv EPOC headset, a consumer EEG that sells for around $299.
With Robodance 5 syncing the EEG headset and the Rovio, a user can control the robot using their thoughts—which Oschler believes makes it ideal for people whose arms and legs are paralyzed, and even more people with more severe conditions, which can at times leave them with only eye movement.
Controlling a robot with your mind is a “very surreal experience,” as Oschler puts it. He notes that he once linked its forward movement command with the emotion of sadness—making the robot run on pure melancholy, just for the fun of it.
Oschler has already envisioned greater applications for the devices. Since they’re Skype-enabled, he plans to link them up with dialing systems so users could call family members, or if there were any problems, a nurse or the police.
“If you’re a quadriplegic and you hear a scary noise at home, what can you do? You have to hope someone’s around at the time. But instead, you could send your little bot out there, and since this thing is Skype-capable you can notify the police or your healthcare practitioner,” Oschler said.
Calls to several centers for people with disabilities yielded no comments on whether the software would come in handy—sounding a bit to sci-fi for most to elaborate on. But one source did comment that current systems for quadriplegics tend to work the other way around, with monitoring software in their rooms that a nurse or guardian will check to make sure they’re OK.
Oschler referenced an old study done on helper robots. The bots would perform tasks for subjects to the smallest detail, bringing drinks and even putting the cups to a patient’s lips, but people couldn’t stand them. The study found users preferred maintaining a certain level of control, and its this same control over their lives that Oschler hopes to bring to the physically disabled with software.
“The part of our minds that creates plans and executes them is a vital part of our self-esteem. It gives us control over our world,” he said.
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Image Courtesy of Robert Oschler.