European engineers unveiled a telepresence system last week designed to allow physically disabled persons to control robots equipped with video cameras as a means of digitally removing barriers to physical interaction.
In this video, José del R. Millán, Defitech Foundation Chair for non-invasive brain machine interfaces at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), and Robert Leeb, from EPFL's Center for Neuroprosthetics, demonstrated how nine subjects with motor disabilities and ten fully abled subjects translated their thoughts into simple commands that a robot could wirelessly receive and carry out. These commands were received from the brain via an electrode studded hat that, through calibration, could read simple thoughts of the wearer.
Leeb explained that the commands parsed from the brain are rudimentary at the moment—just "go straight" or "turn left or right"—and that granular navigation and collision avoidance is processed by the robot's computer.
According to Millán, all nine of the disabled test subjects were able to fully control the robot in less than ten days of training. While the system shows promise for people living with a wide variety of disabilities to expand their reach digitally, Millán cautions that the barrier to ubiquity is actually the cost of implementation. "For this to happen," he said, "insurance companies will have to help finance these technologies."