New Zealand startup Thought-Wired allows people with severe disabilities to communicate using their brain waves

- September 23, 2016 4 MIN READ

Interacting with people through brainwaves either via technology or a telepathic six sense has been long explored in the genre of science-fiction: in Hollywood blockbuster X-Men the character Professor X is telepathic and has the ability to tap into and read other people’s minds.

While the concept of telepathy or thought-controlled communication was once thought to be a futuristic concept or a concept reserved only for the realm of science-fiction, technology today is advancing fast, with the world soon to expect the commercialisation of holograms as explored in The Time Machine, autonomous cars as seen in iRobot and now brainwave communication like in X-Men.

While science-fiction explores the dark side of these technologies, the real world is exploring a multitude of applications to enhance and improve people’s everyday lives.

Auckland-based social enterprise startup Thought-Wired is building a thought-controlled communication solution for people who have severe disabilities and cannot move or talk. The healthtech system is applied to people who are essentially paralysed either because of the condition they were born with like cerebral palsy or something they acquired later in life like a spinal cord injury.

Founder of Thought-Wired, Dmitry Selitskiy is currently working on a product called nous™, a solution that enables entirely ‘physical-free’ access of communication. The technology makes it possible for people to interact with a computer through thought using Brain-Computer Interface (BCI). BCI can be used to replace physical inputs such as keyboards, touchscreens and switches. Essentially the power of natural thought is translated through BCI, enabling people with severe disabilities to navigate, control and access applications without physical movement.

The nous™ is the combination of a headband that is placed on a person’s head, which reads their brain activity and sends that activity as signals to a computer or smartphone. The Thought-Wired software interprets those signals and turns them into functions or actions. The system starts with simple actions like choosing between a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ option on the user’s smart device, then progresses into choosing what they want to eat or what TV station they want to watch.

Selitskiy explained the product will eventually be able to progress into functions that allow users to do anything on a mobile or computer device like answering emails, communicating via social media, and interacting with the physical world by turning light switches on or off.

“We’re looking at progressing longer term around mobility and other things in the physical world whether it is powered wheelchairs or bionic limbs. So that’s really the ambition and the goal,” said Selitskiy.

Currently Thought-Wired is working towards finishing the first commercial version of its product and is in the process of raising funds via New Zealand crowdfunding platform PledgeMe. To date the startup has raised close to $300,000, well achieving its goal of $200,000.

To trial its concept Thought-Wired has been working with caregivers, language specialists and occupational therapists in Auckland. The startup has run a number of structured trials and testing programs with special education schools in Auckland like Carlson School for Cerebral Palsy.

“We have to focus on the most basic communication because, for people with the most profound physical disabilities, no existing solutions work. For them even the most basic ability to communicate is very beneficial and also beneficial for people who provide care for them,” explained Selitskiy.

In Australia, one in five people have a disability and out of those just under 1.4 million have a severe or profound core activity function. There are a number of different products and technologies on the market that assist people who have a severe disability. These technologies are targeting those who have limited physical ability and cannot move their hands, head and sometimes even eyes.

There are a number of different products targeting high-levels of disability, however Selitskiy explained that many of these devices still require some degree of physical ability from their users.

Dr. Jordan Nguyen, an Australian biomedical engineer has developed a thought-controlled smart wheelchair for high-level physical disability. The device uses cameras to perceive its environment and providers the operator with autonomous guidance assistance during navigation.

Along with the wheelchair, Dr. Nguyen has also created an eye tracking control device, which was developed in UTS’s Hatchery program to help people with disabilities control their physical world through their eye movements.

While these technologies offer some of the most innovative solutions for people with severe disabilities they still require some movement from the individual. Selitskiy explained that devices like eye gaze trackers or infrared cameras that monitor head or neck movements still interact with a person’s physical movement.

“For example, the technology that Stephen Hawking’s uses is an infrared camera that looks at his face, specifically his cheek, so he twitches his cheek and uses that as a binary switch. However this means that people who don’t have reliable physical abilities like that are unable to use those solutions.”

Thought-Wired is not only bringing innovation into its products, but also into the price points as well. Instead of releasing nous™ as a one-off purchase product, Thought-Wired will offer it through a subscription service. As many products for people with disabilities can be quite expensive, Thought-Wired has decided to offer its product for $199 a month to help families that can’t afford to pay high upfront fees.

The bulk of what Thought-Wired is offering is software, so like people who use broadband internet their telecommunications company upgrades their modem every time the technology improves. The startup is taking the same approach and through its subscription model will upgrade the user’s software when the next version is available.

Selitskiy said, “I really believe that this is going to be one of the ways that everyone is going to interact with that technology. So whatever you want to call it, direct brain interfacing or brain sensing or brain computer interfacing, in terms of directly using our minds to interface with technology and with the world through technology, that’s going to be one of the prominent ways that we communicate in the future.”

Image: Thought-Wired Team. Source: Supplied.