Device for the disabled: All I have to do is to wink, lift my brows

SINGAPORE - I've always thought that mind control existed only in superhero or scifi movies.

Never did I once imagine that I would come close to the real deal one day - using brain signals to control household appliances.

On Tuesday, I tried out such a device designed by Republic Polytechnic (RP) students, which helped them bag an award last Friday.

I was told that by positioning what looked like a cross between a head massager and headphones on my head, I would be able to switch appliances on or off with just a wink or a wiggle of the eyebrow.


First, I went through a 20-minute crash course by the RP students on how the device worked, using a brain-computer interface.

It didn't sound too difficult for a user. After watching the students' demonstration, I was more worried about looking silly with twitching eyelids and facial spasms.

My first hurdle came while the headset was being positioned onto my head. The fit was so snug that the pressure took a bit of getting used to.

The RP students pointed out that it was already of a bigger size as it came from the US.

It also took a bit of time to make sure that the device could properly detect my brain signals before I could get started - my hair was in the way.

I had before me a fan and a lamp. And all I had to do was to wink and lift my eyebrows.

A wink would switch on or off the electric fan and raising my eyebrows would activate or deactivate the lamp.

So I winked. Nothing happened. As the students watched, I raised my eyebrows. Again, nothing.

I let out a nervous laugh to diffuse the tension in the room. To my surprise, the fan started whirring and the cubic lamp sitting at the corner of the table shone brightly.

At times, I wasn't sure if I was doing it right as there was a three-second lag in the system.

It took a few more tries of accidentally triggering the fan and lights before I finally got the hang of things.

The trick lies in carefully controlling one's facial expressions right down to the intensity of blinking.

Blinking too hard may set off the brain signals involved in raising eyebrows - a command programmed to switch on the light.

Laughing is not a good idea as all the facial muscles are activated, which may turn on the fan and lamp even when you don't want to.

The device may hint at a world of future possibilities for connecting minds and prove to make life more convenient for physically disabled people.

It could even come in handy for people who simply appreciate controlling appliances from the comforts of their seats.

But tweaks will have to be made to ensure that the device is more user-friendly, like reducing the lag in the system, making the nodes more responsive and making the device more portable.

Otherwise, it could backfire and make switching off the fan more of a chore than before.

How device works

It looks like a head massager and headset hybrid.

All you have to do is to position the device's 16 nodes on your head, configure the settings using the software that comes with the it and you're good to go.

Making use of a brain-computer interface, the software registers your brain signals triggered in two different states: at rest and when pushing an imaginary object. With these signals configured, you can start using it to switch appliances on or off.

But some training is required to familiarise yourself with the device, as it will work only when the preset brain signals are detected.

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