This is the premise of Professor John Rogers’ Biostamp. By attaching flexible, miniature sensors to the user’s temple, he has been able to track brain waves in real time and transmit them as messages.
“Our prototypes can provide a variety of monitoring and stimulation functions,” says materials scientist Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. “We can pick up coordinated firing of neurons, and run that activity through a computer spelling interface, so that brainwaves pick letters out of a virtual keyboard display and type messages.”
Previously, such signals could only be detected by using a full helmet of heavy electrodes, which required the patient’s skin to be scrubbed, and could only be worn safely for a short time.
Rogers’ patch is light enough to be almost imperceptible, allowing for lengthy use even outside of the lab, so that the equipment is trained to pick up signals more accurately.
The no-strings approach also eliminates background noise that obscures signals and creates positional uncertainty. For even greater accuracy, the Illinois team are using increasingly high-density electrodes that generate thousands of times more brain activity information.
The immediate targets are two ground-breaking medical applications. One is to measure the brain waves associated with seizures in epileptic patients, flagging up issues before the point of crisis. The other is to monitor sleep patterns for disorders and other insights, which had been impossible with the traditional heavy hardware.
Much of the effort to create this technology in the last few years has been driven by robotics and a desire to give machines human-like sensing capabilities. We now have e-skin devices that can detect approaching objects and measure temperature and applied pressure. These can help robots work more safely by being more aware of their surroundings (and any humans that might get in the way). But if integrated with wearable technology, they could do the same for humans, detecting, for example, harmful movements during sport.
If such interfaces are accessible enough for non-specialists to use and understand, we may be entering a new era of personal responsibility for health and lifestyle.
The public reaction to electronic skin technologies has been mixed, from the enthusiasm of gamers and early-adopters, to scepticism from privacy advocates concerned that we may lose control of sensitive personal data. But the investment and research is rapidly accelerating, and even the aesthetics are now being addressed through the development of jewelry and skin-mounted LED screens.
Jawbones and Fitbits could soon be outdated, with wearable technology just a prelude to full integration, watch this space!