The BBC has created, in its own words, “a mind control TV” prototype. Unfortunate dystopian wording aside (shouldn’t it be mind-controlled TV?), what the BBC has actually done is commission a special version of the iPlayer video-on-demand app that hooks into a consumer-grade Neurosky EEG (electroencephalogram). Users can select which TV show to watch just by thinking happy thoughts (really).
While this sounds rather cool—and don’t get me wrong, there could be somte significant repercussions for quadriplegics or other people with reduced mobility—it’s important to note that this is very much a dumb, early prototype.
Neurosky makes a really cheap ($80/£50) EEG called the MindWave. It plugs into a PC via USB, and there’s a free SDK for developers. The resolution isn’t very high (it’s not medical-grade), but it’s good enough for DIY projects, university research, and other fun-but-not-critical tasks.
The problem is, the data you get from the MindWave (or indeed most other cheap EEGs) is verysimple. As the SDK documentation lays out, you only have access to a few metrics: attention, meditation, eyeblinks, brainwave bands (i.e. alpha waves, delta waves), and “raw output.” Neurosky only knows in basic terms your current state of mind: it knows that you have your attention on something, but it definitely can’t tell what that something is.
The other issue is that, for the most part, we still don’t really know how to decode brain activity. We can see where brain activity is occurring (with great resolution in the case of new imaging techniques like fMRI), but we still don’t have a way of taking that activity and converting it into a tangible thing (the name of a TV show, for example).
So, for now, the mind-controlled BBC iPlayer—made for the BBC by This Place, incidentally—is pretty clunky. All it allows you to do is make selections by meditating (i.e. shutting your eyes and concentrating on your breathing) or by focusing your attention (i.e. trying to solve a complex maths problem). You can’t even move the cursor around: there’s just a carousel of five TV shows that continually loops around, and you start meditating/focusing when the show you want to watch is selected.
As the BBC’s Cyrus Saihan points out, the mind-controlled TV might not be all that impressive as a prototype, but it’s not hard to imagine lots of really awesome futuristic use-cases:
You can imagine a world where instead of having to get up from your sofa or reach for your remote, you just think ‘put BBC One on’ when you want to watch TV. Imagine sitting in your car and thinking ‘I want to listen to Radio 4’ and hearing the radio station come on during your commute to work. Perhaps you might be able to just think ‘give me the latest news’ and in response get served up a personalised set of news headlines.
There’s no reason that EEGs (and the accompanying software) won’t eventually get to that level of functionality. With enough training, that kind of thing is already somewhat feasible. The larger issue is likely to be the EEG itself: head-mounted devices (such as Google Glass) don’t appear to be the most popular variety of wearable computer.