November 23, 2004 11:13 AM PST

Targeting disabilities with tech

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In this solution, the letters of a keyboard are flashed in a predetermined sequence, and the brain's reactions are recorded by an electroencephalogram sensor worn by the receiver. The device is based on a simple concept: When you see the letter you want, the brain automatically registers a spike in electrical activity.

In reality, the Brainy Communicator--as the solution is dubbed--is very much in its infancy. It's a slow process; scientists expect users to be able to type just five characters per minute. Brain wave patterns can be difficult to detect and analyze due to interference, and users require steady concentration for better accuracy. Furthermore, current equipment is too cumbersome for everyday use.

The organizations are working on it. It's still in the early days, but speeds have already been vastly improved. Under lab conditions, accuracy can surpass the 95 percent targeted by scientists.

"What we are seeing now is the convergence of nanotechnology, biology and information technology which, together, can enhance human capabilities," said Jian Kang WU, principle scientist at the Institute for Infocomm Research. Although the proposed Brainy Communicator is a noninvasive technique, he foresees the use of embedded nanomachines to enhance accuracy and reduce brain wave interference.

According to Chia Woon Yee, manager of the Assistive Technology Centre at the Society for the Physically Disabled, the entire project is expected to take two years and cost $300,000 Singapore dollars ($182,272 U.S. dollars), of which almost one-third has been sponsored by Samsung. At the end of 2006, she hopes to have two to five working prototypes, with perhaps the chance that a manufacturer will commercialize the technology.

Converting brain waves into letters is only the first step, she added. Maybe in time, patients will be able to control wheelchairs with just their minds. The technology may also find a willing mass market in the realms of games and digital homes.

As Dr. Balakrishnan departed from the technology showcase, he turned to Kinnear and asked, "We'll keep in touch. OK, David?"

Kinnear responded with an upward glance of his eye--yes, he replied. Next time, perhaps, he'll be using the Brainy Communicator.

Aloysius Choong of CNET Asia reported from Singapore.

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