Thought-propelled wheelchairs, soon

Italian researchers are in talks with manufacturers to make the system an affordable and common-place reality in the next 5-10 years

The user is connected via electrodes on his scalp, and sends a signal by concentrating for a few seconds on a list of desired destination, displayed on a screen.

In a project spanning three years, Italian researchers at Milan’s Polytechnical Institute Artificial Intelligence and Robotics laboratory have developed a wheelchair that obeys mental signals sent via a computer.

The user, who is connected to a computer through electrodes on his or her scalp, can send signals to the wheelchair by concentrating for a few seconds on the name of the desired destination – kitchen, bedroom, bathroom – displayed on a screen.

The system then uses a preset program to take the user to the desired destination.

“We don’t read minds, but the brain signal that is sent,” said Professor Matteo Matteucci who was part of the project.

The chair, he informed, is also equipped with two laser beams that can detect obstacles.

The Milan lab is already in contact with companies that could produce a commercial prototype that could cater to quadriplegics, Matteucci disclosed.

“Still, it could take between five and 10 years for this system to be available widely,” he said, adding that such a wheelchair would cost only 10 per cent more than a classic motorised version.

Research to develop the so-called Brain Computer Interface began in the early 1980s around the world.

Professor Matteo Matteucci (right) and PhD student Bernardo Dal Seno, wearing a skullcap mounted with electrodes and wired to a computer as he sits on a special wheel chair. Italian boffins have developed a wheelchair that obeys mental signals sent to a computer.

Matteucci said a handful of other researchers were working on similar projects to his, including the Federal Polytechnic School in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“Eventually, a research consortium should be set up that will use all these projects as a basis for finding the best approach,” he said.

“We’ve now started work on getting the chair to operate outdoors using a GPS,” Matteucci added.

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