By Alexandra Burlacu | Apr 21, 2013 10:53 AM EDT
Samsung's next big thing may in fact be huge if its engineers succeed in creating touchless tablets controllable by brain waves.
Samsung is apparently researching how to bring mind control to its mobile devices in a bid to develop new ways for people with various mobility impairments to enjoy the benefits of technology. Just imagine being able to check e-mail, send messages or call someone without even touching a screen or having to repeat instructions to a disembodied assistant. One day, this may be Samsung's new reality.
According to MIT Technology Review, Samsung's Emerging Technology Lab ultimately aims to broaden the ways in which all people, impaired or not, can interact with devices. Samsung researchers are currently collaborating with Roozbeh Jafari, and assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas, Dallas, to test new ways for people to use their thoughts to launch an app, select a contact, play a song from a playlist, or power on and off a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1.
Samsung reportedly has no immediate plans to launch a brain-controlled smartphone, but the early-stage research shows how a brain-computer interface could allow people with mobility impairments to complete tasks that would otherwise be impossible. The research involves a cap studded with EEG-monitoring electrodes and shows great promise.
To control a device with EEG-detected brain signals, researchers with Samsung and UT Dallas monitored well-known brain activity patterns that occur when people see repetitive visual patterns. The researchers demonstrated how people could launch an application and make selections within the app by focusing on an icon that was blinking at a certain frequency.
According to Tuffs University human-computer interaction researcher Robert Jacob the project is part of a broader effort to find more ways of communicating with smaller devices such as smartphones.
"This is one of the ways to expand the type of input you can have and still stick the phone in the pocket," explained Jacob, as cited by MIT Technology Review.
"Several years ago, a small keypad was the only input modality to control the phone, but nowadays the user can use voice, touch, gesture, and eye movement to control and interact with mobile devices," explains Samsung's lead researcher Insoo Kim. "Adding more input modalities will provide us with more convenient and richer ways of interacting with mobile devices."
Kim further notes that the project is in the early stages, and considerable more research is necessary for a brain-computer interface to become a new way of interacting with smartphones. The researchers' initial goal was to develop signal processing methods capable of extracting the necessary information to control a device from weak and noisy EEG signals, then get those methods to work on a mobile device.
Jafari's research, meanwhile, is also addressing another considerable challenge: developing EEG sensors that are more convenient to use. Current EEG systems involve gel or wet contact electrodes, which means that a bit of liquid metal must stand between the sensor and a person's scalp.
"Depending on how many electrodes you have, this could take up to 45 minutes to set up, and the system is uncomfortable," notes the researcher. Jafari's sensors take roughly 10 seconds to set up and don't need a liquid bridge, but they do require the user to wear a cap covered with wires.
While the concept of dry EEG is not entirely new, it can provide lower signal quality. Jafari, however, says that his group is working on improving the system's processing and brain signals. If reliable EEG contacts ultimately become smaller and more convenient, a future brain-controlled device could look like a cap users can wear all the time.
According to Kim, the speed with which an EEG-control system user can control the tablet varies from user to user. In the team's experiments, users could make a selection once every 5 seconds on average, with and 80 to 95 percent accuracy.
This technology obviously still has a long way to go before making it out of the sandbox and hit the market, but Samsung's efforts are admirable nonetheless. The early stages of the project show great progress, and the future could look much brighter for people with impairments.
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