A 15-Year-Old Builds a Mind-Controlled Robotic Arm

Shiva Nathan via Parallax
Janet Fang 25 Mar 2014, 05:47
 
Shiva Nathan's new prosthetic can read patterns in the wearer's brainwaves and transmit them to a robotic arm, allowing the user to flex the mechanical fingers with nothing more than their thoughts. And if this project needed any more cool points, its creator is 15 years old.
 
In fact, Nathan was even younger when the idea germinated: In 2012, after hearing about a family member in India who lost both forearms, he set out to design a prosthesis of his own. Although he now takes pre-college classes at MIT, Nathan didn't have access to a world-class robotics lab in which to build an artificial arm. What he did have was a Mindwave Mobile headset by NeuroSky, a California company that builds brainwave-reading headsets that allow people to play games with their thoughts, or trains them to meditate and control those thoughts.
 
NeuroSky's electroencephalography (EEG) headset can detect brain activity patterns associated with specific mental states such as concentration or relaxation. It can then relay that data via Bluetooth to a computer or smartphone. Nathan hacked that hardware so he could use it to control his arm. When the wearer clears her mind, the arm's elbow bends and waves back and forth. When she focuses on a thought, even something as simple as a number, the robot fingers flex.
 
Nathan's two-stage creation is relatively simple -- for example, you'd need much more sophisticated software to translate a user's thought such as reaching his arm into the sky and pointing his index finger into instructions that tell the robotic hand to do the exact same thing. Neuroscientists and roboticists in some of the country's best labs are doing that very thing right now, turning patterns of firing neurons into directions for a prosthesis.
 
But don't lose sight of the promise of Nathan's arm. While those advanced prostheses are incredible machines, they are also incredibly expensive ones that will not make it out of the lab for some time. From easily available parts, Nathan built a prosthetic arm that responds to the wearer's thoughts in real time. As John Fergason of the Brooke Army Medical Center tells Beta Boston: "I think that’s a pretty doggone creative way to do it."
 
Fergason is not alone. Nathan also won accolades -- and $5,000 of funding -- from both the Mobile World Congress and a medical tech contest sponsored by the Army and Carnegie Mellon University. Next, he plans to incorporate eye-tracking technology that would allow a user to move a particular finger with nothing more than a glance. 
 
 
Images: Parallax
 
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