EXCLUSIVE: The power of brain-computer interface assistive devices for motor impairments
Naeem Komeilipoor, CTO of AAVAA, discusses how brain-computer interface assistive devices are working to overcome the limitations of current assistive products, and how these devices enable users with motor impairments to operate devices without difficult physical or spoken commands.
In a world that celebrates technological innovation and connectivity, it is vital to remember that not everyone enjoys the same level of access to these benefits. Globally, more than 2.5 billion people require assistive products to overcome mobility impairments and speech communication disorders, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO). These individuals often face significant challenges in their daily lives, struggling to communicate effectively and engage with the modern, technologically advanced world.
Brain-computer interface technology has undergone a remarkable transformation over the years and is, among other things, providing a long-awaited solution to those with motor impairments. These devices are used to provide functionality to paralysed people, control devices without difficult physical or spoken demands, create the controller of the future for AR/VR environments, and even change how astronauts function in space.
In the ever-evolving landscape of accessibility technology, brain-controlled assistive devices are poised to make a significant impact, offering newfound independence and capabilities to individuals facing motor and speech-related challenges in areas such as enabling paralysed individuals to steer their wheelchairs, operate household appliances, and much more. They are ushering in an era where interaction transcends traditional physical and verbal constraints and radically transforms the daily life of these individuals.
Understanding the types of impairments
To comprehend the significance of brain-controlled assistive devices, it is essential to first define the two primary categories of motor impairments they address:
- Complete mobility impairments and paralysis. This category encompasses individuals with a diverse range of conditions, including cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, quadriplegia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and even those who maintain control over their eye and/or facial movements, allowing for subtle gestures or slight head movements. While some may retain limited motor skills, their movement is significantly restricted, often requiring assistance with daily activities.
- Speech communication disorders with motor impairments. People in this category not only struggle with mobility but also face challenges in speech communication, including conditions such as the locked-in syndrome, neurodegenerative disorders such as cerebral palsy, and those with spinal cords and traumatic brain injuries. Existing assistive technologies fall short in providing comprehensive solutions for them.
Both categories share common problems, including their reliance on assistance for tasks most take for granted and limitations in current assistive technologies.
Existing challenges in assistive technologies
Current assistive technologies, although invaluable, have limitations that impact the quality of life for individuals with motor impairments and speech communication disorders. These challenges include:
- Limited interaction – Many assistive technologies are unable to seamlessly interact with other devices, leading to dependence on caregivers, nurses, or personal assistants for even basic tasks.
- Single device interaction – Users often struggle with the inability to interact with multiple devices simultaneously, limiting their independence and productivity.
- Eye-tracking inefficiencies – Eye-tracking technology, a common solution, suffers from inefficiencies. It requires periodic calibration and often relies on infrared light, making it sensitive to various lighting conditions, including bright sunlight. Additionally, it may not work effectively for individuals with smaller or less distinct eye features, further limiting its reliability as an assistive solution.
- Gesture recognition – Distinguishing between intentional gestures, like blinks or slight, involuntary head movements, and unintentional ones remains a challenge, often resulting in misunderstandings and causing frustration among users.
A new, innovative solution for motor impairments: Brain-computer interface assistive devices
Brain-computer interface (BCI) assistive devices are working to overcome the limitations of current assistive products. BCI assistive devices translate brain and bio-signals directly into meaningful commands for devices.
For the first time, users with motor impairments can operate devices without difficult physical or spoken commands. The technology decodes a user’s eye movements, as well as their intentions and subtle commands, including blinks, winks, tongue movements, and more.
A real-world application showcasing the power of this technology is the AAVAA Headband. This groundbreaking wearable device uniquely operates as a ‘head mouse’ capable of deciphering a user’s head and eye movements, as well as their intentions and subtle commands. This capability empowers users to manage various devices, like phones, tablets, or assistive tools, with straightforward actions like a blink, thereby reshaping accessibility for individuals with limited motor function.
BCI assistive devices empower users to interact with multiple devices simultaneously, fostering independence and efficiency. These devices remain unaffected by varying lighting conditions and exhibit the capability to accurately distinguish between intentional and unintentional gestures, thanks to their reliance on physiological cues and advanced algorithms.
They have the potential to transform the lives of individuals with motor impairments and speech communication disorders in numerous ways:
- Environmental control – Brain-controlled devices enable users to effortlessly manage their home environment through intuitive eye, blink, and head commands, enhancing daily living by promoting independence and comfort. Tasks include muting the TV, adjusting smart home devices, like speakers, or dimming the lights.
- Communication enhancement – These innovative technologies enable individuals with speech disorders to communicate fluidly by typing and speaking through simple head and eye movements, which not only strengthens their social connections but also results in significant enhancements in healthcare communication with providers. This breakthrough diminishes the necessity for intermediaries, ultimately promoting greater independence and improving the overall quality of care for these individuals.
- Mobility enhancement – BCI devices further expand their functionalities to include wheelchair control, granting individuals with physical disabilities greater mobility and independence in their everyday activities, whether it’s running errands or engaging in social interactions.
BCI sensors have the remarkable ability to blend information from the environment, brain, and body using only a hearable device. This comprehensive data collection goes beyond improving health and well-being; it offers a unique insight into one’s physiological state, potentially revolutionising healthcare practices.
Additionally, we can consider as applications of BCI technology:
- Health monitoring: BCI devices can monitor trauma and sudden movements and even fall detection, helping caregivers and medical professionals provide timely assistance. These devices can also track stress, fatigue, and heart rate, enabling more effective health management and enhancing overall well-being.
- Supporting health and social care professionals: Through the use of BCI devices, social workers can continuously monitor patients without hindering their movements or causing distractions, improving support and care.
These devices are available to users in a variety of form factors, such as hardware and earpieces, including earbuds, headphones, glasses, and headbands. The emphasis on ergonomic and user-friendly design ensures that these devices are seamlessly integrated into daily life, offering not only advanced functionality but also comfort and accessibility.
The advent of brain-computer interface assistive devices represents a beacon of hope for individuals with motor impairments and speech communication disorders. These technologies can significantly enhance their quality of life by addressing the limitations of existing solutions.
As the field of assistive technology continues to advance, we can look forward to even more transformative innovations like BCI technology that empower those in need while also making it easier for health and social care professionals to do their jobs more efficiently.