Avatar looks around: Mind controlled robot lets disabled people virtually travel

From his hospital bed, a disabled patient is capable of controlling a telepresence robot and interacting with people he meets over Skype. (Alain Herzog / EPFL)
Paralyzed people could now be provided with a special robot equipped with Skype and controlled remotely with their thoughts that will allow them to move around and meet people.

A years-long research project, destined to promote the independence of people suffering from limited mobility, has yielded outstanding results in different European countries, being both revolutionary in its approach and easy to use, according to Swiss scientists.

Within the framework of the European project called TOBI (Tools for Brain-Computer Interaction), a team of researchers at the Defitech Foundation Chair in Brain-Machine Interface (CNBI), headed by José del R. Millán, have published the results of their experiment in the June special edition of Proceedings of the IEEE.

Nine disabled people and 10 healthy people in Italy, Germany and Switzerland participated in the test piloting of machines that took several weeks. They had to put on an electrode-studded hat that analyzed their brain signals and sent commands in real time via internet to the laboratory of Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL, Switzerland).

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There, the robot was moving around – not only following their instructions, but also taking responsibility by itself, avoiding obstacles on its own or sticking to a chosen by the pilot path in case of getting no further instructions until an order to stop.

“Each of the 9 subjects with disabilities managed to remotely control the robot with ease after less than 10 days of training,” said Professor Millán in the press-release.

The robot with a video camera, screen and wheels films its moves as it operates, while simultaneously displaying the face of the pilot via Skype.

The test showed no difference in the navigational skills of the two groups of participants.

Scientists expressed hopes that the technology would receive the financial backing of insurance companies.