You read my mind

Every year, IBM Corp.’s Almaden Research Center, in San Jose, Calif., hosts a day where scientists and technologists from various companies mix with the media and present some of their latest work.

This year’s event was titled New Paradigms in Using Computers; the subhead was Extreme User Interfaces. My vote for the most unusual presentation goes to Kevin Wheeler, lead of the Extension of the Human Senses Group at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

Wheeler is working on ways to “integrate machines with humans.” At the far end of that spectrum are systems that monitor brain activity in order to manipulate objects — say steering a Mars lander — by merely focusing on them. NASA seeks eventually to develop “silent communications” between people by enabling them to read each other’s minds.

The first stage is called EMG (electromyogram), a noninvasive method that entails attaching electrodes to the top of the skin, rather than implanting them. ( Wheeler had a practical tip for other researchers: It is much easier to get volunteers for noninvasive experiments. I bet.)

The electrodes sense and measure activity in muscles as they contract by creating, in essence, a database of the muscle movements. The system knows, for example, that in touch typing the movement of the left index finger from the F-key to the T key is discrete and unique. The same goes for tracking the muscles as someone manipulates a joystick.

EMG has allowed researchers to create a virtual joystick and a virtual keyboard. The technology will allow interplanetary explorers not only to manipulate a vehicle by moving his or her hand, but even to type messages by moving fingers as if there really were a keyboard beneath them. On a more practical level, there are plenty of hostile environments right here on Earth where the technology could be useful.

To eliminate the need to even attach electrodes to the skin, NASA is also developing electrodes that sense the electric field coming out of the body so that in the future they can be implanted in a shirt, a glove, or even a baseball cap.

The next step gets scary. EEG (electroencephalogram) measures brain activity. So far in early experiments, NASA has been able to get volunteers to move a cursor on the screen merely by thinking left or right, up or down. This goes beyond bio feedback, Wheeler was quick to add.

Here’s how it works: 128 sensors are attached externally to the brain. When a person begins an activity, the electrodes monitor and record the brain waves, provided that the associated activities, such as moving a cursor, are very focused.

Finally, combining EMG with EEG and a limited vocabulary consisting perhaps of commands and responses, two astronauts could talk to each other just by thinking.

There’s more, but, Wheeler said in the mysterious way of government folks, “I can’t go in to it.”

If you want to learn more, however, go to Wheeler’s home page at

Send me e-mail at