The average human brain holds about 85 billion neurons blasting out electrical signals at 250 mph, and researchers at NASA Langley Research Center are working to tap into all that energy.
The power of the mind has long been captured by biofeedback devices, but these scientists are taking it a step further: using brain waves to interact with machines.
It’s called Brain-Computer Interface, and NASA is on a mission to explore its potential and find industry partners to innovate ways to bring BCI to market.
Spin-off technologies NASA is researching now include ways to use brain waves to improve the performance of athletes, videogamers, pilots, special operations forces and others.
But one day, and with the right devices, researchers say, brain waves will be controlling smartphones, computers, cars — even, one day, personal air vehicles, or PAVs, also known as flying cars.
“It’s amazing how quickly BCI and other monitoring capabilities are coming into the environment,” said Chad Stephens, an experimental psychologist at NASA Langley in Hampton. “And people are very interested in being able to monitor these kinds of signals. Monitoring them is the first step — making sense of them is the real challenge.
“So that’s going to be the major hurdle,” he said. “But we’ll probably see it in a lot of gadgets and gee-whiz fun things like toys first. And then people will start to be comfortable with them and then will adopt them in more specific grown-up ways.”
In the ZONE
Stephens and his NASA colleague Alan Pope have been exploring some of those ways.
One is called Zeroing Out Negative Effects, or ZONE, which monitors a subject’s brain wave pattern and uses that to help the subject achieve a target state of mind.
“It differs from ordinary biofeedback devices in that it doesn’t just display your physiology on a screen or in a tone or anything like that,” said Pope, a senior research scientist. “It actually influences the environment you’re interacting with.”
For their ZONE research, they use a putting green connected wirelessly to a brain wave headset.
“The objective is to produce a particular brain wave pattern that has been shown to be associated with a successful putt,” Pope said.
But if those brain waves aren’t in the zone, so to speak, he said, the putting surface undulates and rocks back and forth, the hole expands and contracts.
“That is a physical representation of what’s happening in your brain waves, in your mind,” Stephens said. “And so if you can calm the physical environment, that means you’re exerting control over your brain waves and over your mental state. That’s the challenge that we’re embedding into the real experience.”
Only when the subject achieves the right mindset will the disruptions cease.
Several years ago, LPGA Tour golfer Katherine Hull Kirk arrived to compete in the Michelob Ultra Open Tournament at Kingsmill and tried out the ZONE putting green. According to NASA, she recognized the value of such biofeedback in athletic training.
“I think it’s where the next improvement in golf is going to come,” Kirk said then.
Putting it to use
Similar technology is also used in NASA’s Mindshift research, which uses a video gamer’s biofeedback to alter the game environment — such as shimmying the cursor around — until the gamer’s brain waves settle into an optimal state.
“You’re not just getting the information — you’re getting it through the action of something that you’re interested in controlling, that you’re having an incentive to control,” Pope said. “You’re motivated to do better at that particular task.”
The researchers are working with NASA’s commercialization office to identify industry partners that could license the technology and develop it further into shelf-ready or online products, Stephens said.
Both ZONE and Mindshift were spun off from research into how biofeedback can help train commercial pilots and air traffic controllers. That work is continuing, Pope said, to help pilots maintain focus during the crucial takeoff and landing phases of a flight.
The technology, however, doesn’t involve altering the physical environment, Pope said. Instead, it provides a pilot’s biofeedback to instructors during flight simulator training.
Attention management to enhance flight safety is part of NASA’s work with the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, which includes industry, government and academic partners.
Public interest is growing in wearable devices that can monitor our bodies in some way, the researchers said, such as the Fitbit watch that can track the wearer’s movements, heart rate and sleep patterns.
In fact, said Pope, a recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas “was dominated, as I understand it, by wearable physiological monitoring technologies.”
“That hasn’t always been the case,” he said. “These technologies that we’ve come up with — a way of delivering biofeedback — can build on that.”
As technologies mature, he said, devices will become even more fashionable, more unobtrusive and more responsive.
And cutting-edge versions won’t merely be voice-enabled, Stephens said, but would respond to the electrical impulses emitted by all those neurons in your brain.
“It could be something that can be called ‘brain-enabled,’ ” Stephens said. “Is your music player brain-enabled? Is your laptop computer brain-enabled? Is your car brain-enabled?”
Responding to your brain waves, your smartphone could play songs tuned to your state of mind, he said, or your Smart car might sense you’re too drowsy to drive safely and advise you pull over for coffee — or even pull over for you and park.
“There’s one other idea that looks like it’s on the horizon, in terms of personal air vehicles — vehicles that you would own just like you own a car,” Stephens said.
PAVs would likely be mostly autonomous, he said, but the operator would still need to be in charge, making monitoring even more important.
“There’s a lot of technological advances that need to be made for PAVs to happen,” Stephens said. “But, in our research group, we focus on the human operator and how can we optimize their behavior to perform the task.”
Tech advances like these may seem like science fiction, but many — such as a brain-enabled music player — could arrive in just a few short years, he said.