The Future is Here: The Happiness Blanket

happiness-blanketIt’s like something out of Huxley’s Brave New World: a blanket that monitors your brain activity, and takes on a corresponding color to show just how relaxed you are. Yes, it might sound like a bizarre social experiment, but in fact, it is part of a British Airways study to measure the effects of night-time travel between Heathrow and New York, a trip that takes flyers across multiple time zones.

Anyone who has ever done this knows that the jet lag can be a real pain in the ass. And for frequent flyers, jet lag has a surprisingly powerful impact on their internal clocks and circadian rhythms. Part of the problem arises from the fact that travelers are inside a metal and plastic cylinder that’s about as far from natural as possible, which poses difficulties for psychologists and others tasked with improving passenger conditions.

happiness-blanket-4Using the happiness blanket, British Airways is trying to tweak those conditions to make air travel more relaxing and better suited to adjusting to a new time zone. The blanket works by using a neurosensor studded headband to measure brain waves and determine the user’s level of relaxation, while fiber optics woven into the material display this through color patterns. Red means the minimum of relaxation, and blue indicates the maximum relaxation.

Naturally, there’s also the marketing angle that’s at work here. In truth, there’s no need for the blankets to have a readout mechanism, but it is a nice way of illustrating to the public what’s going on. Using data gleaned from volunteer fliers, British Airways hopes to learn how to adjust the various factors in the cabin options and routines – including lighting, mealtimes, menus, seating positions, types of films shown, and general cabin routine.

happiness-blanket-1According to British Airways, the key to these adjustments is to provide passengers with the best sleep possible on long flights, which is one reason why the airline has introduced lie-flat seating for business class and above. Better relaxation provides the brain with as few distractions as possible while traveling to different time zones, so it has a chance to adjust.

As Frank van der Post, British Airways’ managing director, brands and customer experience, said about the experiment:

Using technology like the British Airways ‘happiness blanket’ is another way for us to investigate how our customers’ relaxation and sleep is affected by everything on board, from the amount of light in the cabin, when they eat, to what in-flight entertainment they watch and their position in the seat.

I can smell an industry emerging. High-tech happiness monitoring. And with the growth in neurosensors and EEG headsets, its was really just a matter of time before someone got pro-active and decided to mass produce them. I imagine other companies will begin following suit, perhaps to monitor their employees happiness, or to gauge customer response to commercials. It all sounds so deliciously quasi-fascist!

And be sure to check out the video of the company’s promotional video:


Source:
gizmag.com
, britishairways.com

The Future is Weird: Cyborg Sperm!

cyborg_sperm1Finding ways to merge the biological and the technological, thus creating the best of both worlds, is one of the hallmarks of our new age. Already, we have seen how bionic appendages that connect and calibrate to people’s nerve signals can restore mobility and sensation to injured patients. And EEG devices that can read and interpret brainwaves are allowing man-machine interface like never before.

But cyborg sperm? That is something that might require an explanation. You see, sperm cells have an awesome swimming ability. And wanting to take advantage of this, Oliver Schmidt and a team researchers at the Institute for Integrative Nanosciences in Dresden, Germany, combined individual sperm cells with tiny magnetic metal tubes to create the first sperm-based biobots.

Cyborg_Sperm3This means we now have a way to control a cell’s direction inside the body, a breakthrough that could lead to efficient microscopic robots – one which are not entirely mechanical. To make the “biohybrid micro-robot,” Schmidt and his colleagues captured and trapped bull sperm inside magnetic microtubes, leaving the tail outside.

To create the spermbots, the team made microtubes 50 microns long, by 5 to 8 microns in diameter from iron and titanium nanoparticles. They added the tubes to a fluid containing thawed bull sperm. Because one end of each tube was slightly narrower than the other, sperm that swam into the wider end become trapped, headfirst, with their flagella still free.

cyborg_sperm2With mobility taken care of, the team moved on to the matter of how to control and direct the microtubes. For this, they chose to rely on a system of external magnetic fields which work the same way as a compass needle does, by aligning with the Earth’s magnetic field. This enabled the team to control the direction in which the sperm swam, adjusting their speed through the application of heat.

According to the researchers, the option of using sperm as the basis for a biohybrid micro-robot is attractive because they are harmless to the human body, they provide their own power, and they can swim through viscous liquids – such as blood and other bodily fluids. As the researchers said in their paper:

The combination of a biological power source and a microdevice is a compelling approach to the development of new microrobotic devices with fascinating future application.

cyborg_spermGranted, the idea of cybernetic sperm swimming through our systems might not seem too appealing. But think of the benefits for fertility treatments and inter-uteran health. In the future, tiny biohybrid robots like these could be used to shepherd individual sperm to eggs, making for more effective artificial insemination. They could also  deliver targeted doses of drugs to uteran tissue that is either infected or cancerous.

And if nothing else, it helps to demonstrate the leaps and bounds that are being made in the field of  biotechnology and nanotechnology of late. At its current rate of development, we could be seeing advanced medimachines and DNA-based nanobots becoming a part of regular medical procedures in just a few years time.

And while we’re waiting, check out this video of the “cyborg sperm” in action, courtesy of New Scientist:


Sources:
IO9, newscientist.com

The Future is Creepy: Reading Consumer’s Brainwaves

brainscansProduct marketing has always been a high stakes game, where companies rely on psychology, competitive strategies, and well-honed ad campaigns to appeal to consumer’s instincts. This has never been an exact science, but it may soon be possible for advertisers to simply read your brainwaves to determine what you’re thinking and how much you’re willing to pay.

This past October, the German news site Spiegel Online profiled the provocative work of a Swiss neuroscientist and former sales consultant who is working on a method of measuring brain waves to determine how much a person would be willing to pay for a good or service. Known as “feel-good pricing” to marketing critics, the idea is already inspiring horror and intrigue.

brainwavesThe neuroscientist in question is Kai-Markus Müller, the head of Neuromarketing Labs who has over 10 years of experience in neuroscience research. According to his test, Starbucks is not actually charging enough for its expensive coffee. In fact, it’s probably leaving profits on the table because people would probably still buy it if they charged more.

To conduct this test, Müller targeting an area in the brain that lights up when things don’t really make sense. When test subjects were presented with the idea of paying 10 cents for coffee, their brain reacted unconsciously because the price seemed too cheap. A coffee for $8, on other hand, produced a similar reaction since the price seemed too high.

brain-activityOne would think that this method would help to determine optimum pricing. However, Müller then set up a coffee vending machine where people were allowed to set their own price. The two methods then matched up and revealed that people were willing to pay a higher price than what Starbucks actually charges. Somehow, paying less made people think they were selecting an inferior grade of product.

Naturally, there are those who would be horrified by this idea, feeling that it represents the worst combination of Big Brother surveillance and invasive marketing. This is to be expecting when any talk of “reading brainwaves” is concerned, dredging up images of a rampant-consumer society where absolutely no privacy exists, even within the space of your own head.

neuromarketOn the other hand, Müller himself takes issue with the notion of the “transparent consumer”, claiming that “Everyone wins with this method”. As proof, he cited the numerous flops in the consumer economy in the Spiegel Online article. Apparently, roughly 80 percent of all new products disappear from shelves after a short time, mainly because the producers have misjudged the markets desire for them or what they are willing to pay.

It’s all part of a nascent concept known as Neuromarketing, and it is set to take to the market in the coming years. One can expect that consumers will have things to say about it, and no doubt those feelings will come through whenever and wherever producers try to sell you something. Personally, I am reminded of what Orwell wrote in 1984:

“Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed — no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.”

futurama_lightspeedbriefsAnd perhaps more appropriately, I’m also reminded of what Fry said about advertising in the Season 1 episode of Futurama entitled “A Fistfull of Dollars”:

“Leela: Didn’t you have ads in the 21st century?

Fry: Well sure, but not in our dreams. Only on TV and radio, and in magazines, and movies, and at ball games… and on buses and milk cartons and t-shirts, and bananas and written on the sky. But not in dreams, no siree.”

Somehow, truth is always stranger than fiction!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, spiegel.de, neuromarketing-labs.com

The Future is Here: The “Attention Powered” Car

attention_powered_CarDriver inattention, tunnel vision, and distraction are all major causes of road accidents. And while the law has certainly attempted to remedy this situation by imposing penalties against driving while on the phone, or driving and texting, the problem remains a statistically relevant one. Luckily, Emotiv and the Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia have joined forces to come up with a brilliant – albeit slightly unusual – solution.

It’s known as the “Attention Powered Car”, an automobile that features a neuroheadset made by Emotiv, creator of a range of electroencephalography-based monitoring gear. Basically, the driver straps on the headset while driving and  then interfaces with custom software to read the driver’s brainwaves. Any lapses in concentration are read by the headset and cause the vehicle to slow down to about 14 km/h (9 mph) as a way of alerting the driver.

emotiv_epocIn fact, the car – a Hyundai i40 – will only run at full capacity when it senses that drivers are giving their full attention to the task at hand. According to Pat Walker, RAC executive general manager:

The impact of inattention is now comparable to the number of deaths and serious injuries caused by speed and drink driving, which are all contributors to Western Australia consistently having the worst fatality rate of any Australian state. Nationally, it is estimated inattention was a factor in 46 percent of fatal crashes.

The prototype design is largely meant to bring attention to the issue of driver distraction, and also serve as a tool for investigating the problem further. Researchers have been using the car (on a track) to test how various tasks, such as switching radio stations or sending a text message, impact a driver’s attention. Factors measured include blink rate and duration, eye movement, and head tilts.

googlecarAnd while novel and pure science fiction gold, the concept is also quite due. Given the improvements made in EEG headsets in recent years, as well as computerized vehicles, it was really just a matter of time before someone realized the potential for combining the technologies to create a safer drive that still relied on a human operator.

While robot cars may be just around the corner, I imagine most people would prefer to still be in control of their vehicle. Allowing for a neuroband-operated vehicle may be just the thing to marry increased safety while avoiding the specter of a future dystopian cliche where robots handle our every need.

RAC WA has also produced a number of videos about the Attention Powered Car, including the one below. To check out others, simply click on this link and prepare to be impressed.


Sources: news.cnet.com, staging.forthebetter.com.au

The Future is Here: Passthoughts Replace Passwords

tcdsYou’ve heard of the Muse Headband, or perhaps the Neurosky Mindwave; devices that measure your brainwaves? Well as it happens, researchers at UC Berkley are using the technology to pioneer and new and revolutionary concept: passthoughts! Whereas accessing your computer, tablet or smartphone now is a matter of typing passwords on a (sometimes terribly small) keyboard, in the future it could be as easy as putting on a band and thinking.

Basically, the concept calls for the use of a mind-reading headband as a biometric identifier. Much like a person’s DNA or the blood vessels in their retina are specific to that individual, brainwaves also seem to be unique and can be used to identify them. An especially useful fact, if you want to log into a computer or otherwise prove your identity. Unlike passwords, credit card info or social security numbers, brainwaves cannot be stolen or faked… yet!


neurosky
To do this, the Berkeley researchers used a $100 commercial EEG (electroencephalogram), in this case the Neurosky. This device resembles a Bluetooth headset, with the slight difference of it having a single electrode that rests on your forehead and measures your brainwaves. These are then transmitted via a Bluetooth to a nearby computer. Much like a clinical EEG, the system has an error rate of less than 1%, but requires a single electrode instead of between 32 and 256.

To develop the brain-biometric process, participants were asked to complete seven different tasks with the EEG equipped. Three of the tasks were generic, requiring the participants to focus on breathing in and out, imagine moving their finger up and down, and listening for an audio tone. The other four tasks required participants to focus on an individual/personalized secret, such as singing a song of their choice, or performing a repetitive action.

brainwavesWhile performing these tasks, their brainwaves were monitored for heuristic patterns. And as it turns out, all seven tasks — even just sitting there and focusing on your own breathing — provided enough information to authenticate the subjects identity. So when it comes right down to it, this means of identifying oneself works effectively, and eliminates the need for passwords and could provide another layer of identity protection. All for the onetime price of $100.

But of course, there are some issues. For one, the bulk and unaesthetic nature of the EEG and the accuracy of the system, but these are both remediable. As it stands, no one would really want to wear a Neurosky EEG in public, but if the electrode were concealable – say, within a Bluetooth headset – this wouldn’t be a problem. As it stand, accuracy is the far more important issue. While a 99% accuracy rate is good, it is not good enough for serious and possibly security-based applications.

?????????????????But looking forward, it is not hard to imagine that the accuracy of the system will increase, as EEG hardware and biometric algorithms improve in quality. It is also very easy to imagine smartphones that can identify their users through their brainwaves, provided they are wearing a Bluetooth headset with an EEG equipped. In addition, computers that come equipped with headbands so people can log in and start working simply by sitting down and issuing the proper thoughts.

Thinking truly long-term, its not hard to imagine that the headband itself will be done away with in favor of a wireless EEG implanted underneath the skin. Much in the same way that these are allowing people to control robotic limbs, they may also allow us to log into computers, type documents, surf the net, and play video games with just our thoughts. Move over Xbox Connect! Here comes Xbox Thinx (patent pending!)

my_future_office_by_ishmakey-d3l9n3t

Source: Extremetech.com

Controlling Epilepsy with Lasers

optogenetics-640x353For over a century, scientists have sought to learn more about epilepsy, the most common form of seizure activity in humans. Basically, these seizures are what happen when neurons misfire in response to sudden exposure to light. Arising in discrete regions on either pole of the brain, this neurological disorder effects many people worldwide and can have a drastic impact on their lives. Luckily, it seems that researchers may finally have a way to predict the seizures and even eliminate them  altogether.

It’s called optogenics: the science of using genetically modified viruses to insert light-responsive channels into the neurons and then following that up with the use of lasers to reduce and even eliminate TLE, or temporal lobe epilepsy. And thanks to ongoing research, there might just be a way to both predict and shut down these episodes of unwanted neurological activity just as they begin. And ironically, its all through the use of targeted laser light.

Mouse-HippocampusThe breakthrough came in a recent study by Nature Communications, researchers were able to trigger seizures in mice by treating the hippocampus section of their brains (the part involved in seizure activity). It began with the use of an acid named kainate that is derived from seaweed, which in turn left them susceptible to spontaneously generated seizure activity. Then, through the use of a series of implanted EEG electrodes, the researchers were able to detect signs that seizures were beginning and then shut them off with light.

Naturally, there are concerns about adapting the technique to humans. Not only were the mice specifically engineered for the study, there is also the issue of achieving full optical stimulation in human subjects. To address these issues, a number of solutions are in the works. For example, biocompatible polymer electrodes have been designed to ensure that the genetically-modified virus can be delivered properly to the human brain. In addition, a number of key developers have been working on compact devices that contain hundreds of discrete delivery electrodes that ought to provide the requisite neurological stimulation.

neurozeneIt is research, and it’s ongoing. But the results are encouraging and with ongoing development to adapt it to humans, anti-seizure medical devices are expected to be exploding in the near future. Much like the tiny electrodes used to stimulate brain activity and recollection in a simian, we could be looking at the prototype for a new type of brain implants that addresses and eliminates neurological disorders.

Source: Extremetech.com