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Using mind control to empower those with disabilities

A person with disabilities operating a brain-controlled game.
We are Team Gray Matter, and at Cybathlon 2016 we will be competing against about 20 different teams from universities around the world. Many teams are quite experienced, so it’s a huge challenge for us, as we are starters here. The practical task is to control a computer game avatar to perform actions, to overcome some obstacles, to speed up, or jump, or slide and so on. And this all has to be performed without any actual physical movement. So Peter has to perform mental tasks to control commands for the BCI. For example, imagining a movement or doing some arithmetic, subtraction, or imagining some visual things - rotating, for example.
To do mental tasks, and while the user is performing these BCI commands, this is accompanied by some certain types of brain activity, which we can pick up with particular equipment, with electroencephalography, and then use signal processing and lots of data processing and analysis to interpret this activity into some particular control command. This is actually a racing game, so it’s similar to a lot of apps out there for iPads and iPhones at the moment, but we’re going to be in a virtual race. There’s going to be four avatars lined up and you’re going to get to see not only how you’re performing, but how well your opponents are performing at the same time.
It’s, sort of, four states of mind in which I’ve got to train, one of them being neutral, so not triggering any commands and not triggering what they call artefacts, which is me maybe moving or spasming. It’s very sensitive. And then the three action commands, I call them, the three different obstacles we’re dealing with. So, for a purple obstacle, I would imagine reaching for a chocolate bar with my left hand. Trying to associate the command to the left side of my body and make it an enjoyable experience, something which might make me smile and therefore be detectable in a different way to the next command, which is for the turquoise obstacle.
It’s almost like an aggressive tackle or an aggressive punch to somebody’s face. It’s a stark contrast to the nice, smooth, enjoyable reaching for a chocolate bar. And then the third and final command being something completely different again, which is mental arithmetic. So, doing maths and subtractions in my mind just to use the part of the brain which deals with maths, and therefore makes it identifiable as a command. It’s my friend Ivan, who’s also the team leader. He set about looking on the internet what was available out there since my accident. I was previously quite an active, sort of outgoing guy, and Ivan looked from the point of view of getting me fishing again, believe it or not.
And that’s how he stumbled across Cybathlon and a way for people in my position to still compete using assistive technology. It’s enjoyable, in terms of just seeing a performance that I’m generating, obviously, with the assistance of the team. The difficulty being that I understand the more we can do this, the better our results will be. And just living with the normal health issues that come with somebody who’s got my level of disability. It can slow you down a little bit and become quite frustrating. There’s obviously some very experienced teams out there. We met a couple in the test run. None of the pilots - just some of the tech leaders.
And I understand that there’s universities out there that do nothing but BCI research. And they’re obviously in a much stronger position than the majority of the other teams. But we’re going over there to try our best, we’re not just making up the numbers. We’re going to go see if we can get a podium finish. Aim for the top and see what happens. The potential for the BCI system and the EEG system we’re using, I mean, there’s obvious potential in medical fields and diagnosing or helping people with brain injuries and so on. But the fact is the applications are limitless. We’re in such an early stage of its research, and that research could take you anywhere.
It could take you to playing computer games, like we’re doing. It could control wheelchairs in the future. It’s literally limitless, the applications, we’re only dipping our toe really and playing about compared to what it actually could be applied to in real life.

In October 2016, Switzerland hosted the world’s first Cybathlon, where pilots with severe physical disabilities complete a series of challenges using advanced assistive technologies.

The Cybathlon provides a platform for accelerating the development of new skills and novel assistive technologies that are useful for people with disabilities where they need it most – in daily life. Cybathlon athletes not only tackle challenges, proving their speed and skill using the most up-to-date prostheses and technologies, they also play a vital part in the development of these assistive devices.

Dr Mahnaz Arvaneh along with others at The University of Sheffield formed Team Gray Matter, an independent team, who trained to compete in a Brain Computer Interface (BCI) Race.

In this video, we hear from some of the members of the team, including their pilot, Peter Gray, who took some time out from his intensive training at the University to talk to us about his experience so far and his expectations for the system.

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