Friday, February 22, 2013

Finally, Tattoos That Let You Control Objects with Your Mind

Coleman Lab / UCSD
Science hasn’t been easy on the paranormal, routinely deflating fantastic claims by hucksters purporting psychic abilities. So wouldn’t it be ironic if scientists were on the verge of making paranormal-like abilities a reality?

Imagine controlling an object with your mind. Or don’t, because you probably already have. I did when I was a (pretty little) kid. It never worked, of course, but boy did I stare daggers at several unsuspecting flower pots, pencils and sticks of chalk.

The trouble, of course, is that your brain works a whole lot better when it’s motivating things it’s actually wired to, say your eyeballs, tongue, fingers or toes. But aha, you’re saying, we have wireless technology in 2013. We live in the future! Can’t we just cut that cord, too?
We already have: If you want to get technical about it, when using a handheld remote control with old-school antennae to pilot a hobby-style airplane across a field, you don’t actually touch the radio-controlled plane; the brain-interface includes your hands and the control box. But that assumes you have hands to work with, and working a control box to drive a wireless drone around is hardly “telekinetic” — not half as cool-sounding as it might be if you could simply think that drone into action.

You’ve probably heard of brain implants acting as biomedical prostheses in what’s sometimes referred to as a “brain-computer interface,” allowing someone to manipulate neuroprosthetic arms and legs or simply nudge a mouse cursor using nothing but thought. We’re doing that stuff today. But you’re still talking about interfaces that usually involve invasive technology, often drilled into the skull and attached directly to the brain itself — Jean Grey, it’s not. What if you could reduce the interface to something that didn’t require brain surgery, something not only noninvasive, but roughly the size of a tiny, removable tattoo?

Call it “cerebral cord-cutting.” That’s essentially what Dr. Todd Coleman and fellow researchers at the University of California San Diego are up to, creating “electronic tattoos” capable of interfacing with your brain and wirelessly conveying your thoughts as commands to remote systems and devices. Using what he describes as an “ultrathin conformal” design, Coleman has been developing “foldable, stretchable electrode arrays” that can non-invasively pick up neural signals, EEG-style. Unlike a traditional EEG, which might involve a spaghetti-dinner’s worth of scalp-placed cabling and conductive gel, Coleman’s solution amounts to a tiny piece of pliable skin-like material less than the thickness of a human hair and houses “epidermal electronic” circuitry powered by solar cells or antennae, which also allow it to communicate wirelessly. That’s it up top, a stylin’ body mark that wouldn’t be out of place in a Neal Stephenson or William Gibson novel.

We first noticed Coleman’s work back in 2011, when it was angled more toward diagnostic medical research, the idea being that small, wearable, easily concealed sensors would make keeping tabs on someone’s biological data — say monitoring brain or heart activity — much easier. If you’ve ever worn a holter monitor, for instance, you know what a mess that can be, and while holter technology’s improved ergonomically over the years, imagine how much simpler it might be if you could just slap one of these tattoos on and have it wirelessly transmit information to something like a watch- or smartphone-based diagnostic app (which, in turn, would be capable of relaying that information back to someone else).

And that’s just the start. According to Txchnologist, Coleman and his team of researchers are actively working on creating electronic tattoos capable of manipulating external electronics like remote-control drones (so not really telekinesis, but as sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”).

It gets even wilder. Imagine placing one of these electronic tattoos near your throat, where it might pick up on subvocal muscle movements. When you think about speaking, forming words in your mind, muscles in your throat and tongue actually move in extremely subtle ways undetectable without sensors. Add one of Coleman’s sensor-laced tattoos and not only might you be able to convert those movements into speech, the tattoos could actually relay words to someone (or something) else wirelessly. If your friend across the room has a smartphone capable of receiving the data, plugged into a pair of earbuds, they could actually hear your speech-related thoughts — pseudo-telepathy!

“We’ve demonstrated our sensors can pick up the electrical signals of muscle movements in the throat so that people can communicate just with thought,” says Coleman, adding that the tattoos could also be used to improve speech recognition by giving apps like Siri a subvocal leg up.
Again, the notion of remotely conveying speech or controlling objects with the power of your mind alone isn’t new, it’s the idea of creating a noninvasive interface sophisticated enough to measure biological activity accurately without clumsy intermediary cables and gels that’s groundbreaking. Imagine what you might be able to do game-wise in tandem with something like Microsoft‘s Kinect, or Google’s Project Glass, for instance. As Sony EyeToy creator Richard Marks (not the pop singer) once told me, you can do all kinds of things with ergonomically unappealing technology today, but the real trick is designing something that people would actually wear. Tattoo-sized technology sounds like just the ticket.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hidden system makes it easier for elderly people to live at home



The wall panel LISA assists elderly people.
Where are my reading glasses? The wall panel "LISA" assists elderly people. (Photo: U. Benz / TUM)
14.02.2013, Research news
In the future, home-assisted living for the elderly could take a very unusual form. Researchers have developed a system that can track down reading glasses or the front door key, analyze health data, and contact a physician or a call-out service. And the technology to do all this would be embedded in the walls. A smart entrance hall system will be unveiled at the Munich Creative Business Week event on February 20. Custom-designed models for other rooms are already in the pipeline.
Most senior citizens would prefer to live in their own homes for as long as possible. But memory loss and restricted mobility can lead to problems. Items like glasses or the phonebook disappear into thin air, or seniors can find themselves on the wrong side of a locked door after a trip to the shops. Many seniors end up unwilling to set foot outside the door, wary of their ability to get around or simply worried about the weather.

To alleviate these problems, researchers from Technische Universität München (TUM) and partners from the business world have designed a wall panel to assist the elderly in their own homes. A tablet computer is mounted in the wall and this provides a one-stop-shop for all the information they need. The weather forecast, bus timetables, family phone numbers and more can be accessed with a few simple taps on the screen.
Indoor positioning system can locate reading glasses
The prototype was designed for an entrance hall area and looks like a wardrobe. But this is no ordinary wardrobe. Thanks to its smart technology, it can issue a warning if the apartment’s occupant has not taken the front door key from the keyholder when they open the front door. The wall can keep track of other items that are often mislaid, too. It controls an “indoor positioning system” that can locate a pair of glasses, for example.

If the occupant is not feeling well, biosensors can measure key vital signs like blood pressure and blood sugar level. The system can then issue recommendations − from a spot of exercise to a dose of medication. If the smart wall detects a critical health problem, it will contact a physician or a mobile nursing service. These healthcare professionals could also connect to the terminal to regularly check the elderly person’s health status. The terminal could also be linked to shopping or transport service providers.

The wall unit would also handle building automation functions. An integrated air conditioning unit would keep fresh air circulating if the occupant forgets to air the apartment.
Robot brings shopping basket to the kitchen
The researchers’ long-term aim is to design similar wall panels for every room. In the kitchen, the smart wall could monitor the stovetop or make meal preparation easier with height-adjustable cupboards. A small assistant in the form of a mobile robot could move between the hallway and the other rooms. It would be able to carry a shopping basket and bring it to the kitchen on command, for example.

The scientists have been careful to promote independence: “We want people to retain as much of their independence as possible,” affirms Prof. Thomas Bock of the TUM Chair of Building Construction and Robotics. “The assistance should only kick in when people are no longer capable of doing something themselves.” For that reason, the walls will have a modular design, with new functions added as and when required.

The assembly includes more than just high-tech features. The researchers remembered to add the usual hall fittings. Along with standard coat hooks, there is also a practical shoehorn at floor level.

LISA project:
The “Living independently in Südtirol / Alto Adige (LISA)” project is being headed up by Human Ambient Technologies Lab. The TUM research institutes involved are the Chair of Building Construction and Robotics, the Chair of Philosophy and Science Theory and the recently created Munich Center for Technology in Society. On the business side, the following companies are taking part in the LISA project: MM Design, Frener & Reifer, Kompetenzzentrum Alpines Bauen (KAB), Pfeifer Architekten, TIS Innovation Park and Barth Innenausbau. The project is being supported by the Italian province of South Tyrol. The prototype has already undergone extensive testing and the business partners are keen to launch a finished product in the near future.

LISA will be presented during Munich Creative Business Week. Visitors will be able to see for themselves what the smart wall can do. Other innovations to try out will include an armchair-cum-fitness trainer and the “PASSAge” assistance system, which networks walking aids, vehicles and building automation systems. Another interesting exhibit will be a suit which simulates restricted mobility in old age. Experts will be there to talk about how microsystem technology and robotics can solve the problems of our aging society.

“Human Ambient Technologies”
Wednesday, February 20
Talks between 14:00 and 16:00, presentations between 16:00 and 18:00
Technische Universität München
Building Robotics Lab (room 0710)
Arcisstrasse 21 (Theresienstrasse entrance)
80333 Munich, Germany

Prof. Thomas Bock
Technische Universität München
Chair of Building Construction and Robotics
T: +49 89 289 22100 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +49 89 289 22100 FREE end_of_the_skype_highlighting
The wall panel LISA assists elderly people.
Where are my reading glasses? A test person and Prof. Kerstin Wessig of the Human Ambient Technologies Lab at the wall panel "LISA". (Photo: U. Benz / TUM)
A test person and Prof. Kerstin Wessig of the Human Ambient Technologies Lab at the wall panel LISA.
Is the front door key in its box? A test person (r.) and Dr. Christos Georgoulas of the TUM Chair of Building Construction and Robotics at the wall panel "LISA". (Photo: U. Benz / TUM)
A test person and Dr. Christos Georgoulas of the TUM Chair of Building Construction and Robotics at the wall panel LISA.
A test person at the wall panel "LISA". (Photo: U. Benz / TUM)
A test person at the wall panel LISA.
Along with high-tech features the wall panel "LISA" includes a practical shoehorn. (Photo: U. Benz / TUM)
Along with high-tech features the wall panel LISA includes a practical shoehorn.
Wonderwalls - hidden system supports elderly people at home. (Photo: U. Benz / TUM)