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Imagine controlling your household appliances with a though, or perhaps creating your own ending to a movie in your head only to see it come alive on the screen. Imagine a child with attention deficit disorder suddenly harnessing the power of his or her concentration. If such technology existed it could change the lives of people living with disabilities by opening up a world controlled by their minds.
MindDrive is the first product that enables consumers to operate computers with their thoughts alone. MindDrive applications let users print, ski, shoot, fly and compose music--all in their mind. The MindDrive uses a sensor sleeve that simple fits onto any finger (like a large ring). The "ring" essentially picks up signals from the mind and transmits them to MindDrive and a computer. MindDrive interprets those thought signals and directly moves the on-screen image the user is thinking about, for example, a 3D snow skier or paint brush.
MindDrive is in it's earliest phase--as a computer game which you can buy in stores now. However it soon may change the way you and I relate and act within the real world. We recently discussed the advances being made with MindDrive and its future applications with its creator, former president of Atari, Ron Gordon and Rodger Wellman, VP and CIO in charge of the Technology Office at Easter Seals.
Chet Cooper: Did you come up with the idea of MindDrive and if so how?
Ron Gordon: Actually the genesis of this idea came up 22 years ago. I was president of Atari and we had launched the Atari video games and they were very successful but there was a lot of criticism in the press. So we had a meeting about what we should do about this. The media had said that these were mindless gamesthat they were bad for children. Someone in the meeting made a joke and said, "We should make a mind pong game." It hit me like a bolt and I couldnt get the idea out of my head. We tried to do it and the technology wasnt there and I tried a couple of times over the ensuing years and finally I decided seven years ago that I was going to work on this until we get it.
CC: The idea was initially in a bio-feedback sense?
RG: Yes. The idea was to make a video game that was really good for people and good for children. Ive always been fascinated by the brain and learning how to use the other 90 percent of our brain so we finally decided were going to get this.
CC: How much research and development is going on today with this technology?
RG: Quite a bit we are evolving the technologymaking it more sensitive and giving it more control. We are working on six words now where you can think those words and execute those commands; things of that nature.
CC: Could you explain that?
RG: Essentially it could be any six words. There are six different types of states and those sort of thoughts would either display those words or execute those commands.
CC: So when you say word, its a verb?
RG: No any word. Its a brain wave state. You can assign whatever word you want to that state.
CC: Can you give an example?
RG: If you got angry right now I know what youre physiology would do. Your pulse would go up. Your heart rate would go up. Your temperature would go down. Your nervous system activity would get more jagged. Thats one of the ways our technology works. We record those and we have charted all the different states. So we would assign a word to that particular state as opposed to a happy state or a left brain state or a right brain state and so on.
CC: Is it a form of conditioned response?
RG: No. When you have different thoughts; positive thoughts, negative thoughts or embarrassing thoughts, it effects the physiology in unique ways. We have charted those ways and then the technology interprets those things and translates them into computer commands.
CC: If you are able to do this to words, is the next stage the ability to link the words?
RG: We dont think six words is too much. Our goal next year is to try to get to twenty-five words. These can be displayed as a word or it could be a command, like turn this on or go to this place or access this or whatever you want.
CC: You have these responses you can monitor via the mind to the skin? Is there a limit to that?
RG: Six sensors pick up blood pulse, volume, temperature, heart rate and nervous system activity and we have an artificial intelligence program that looks at all of them in combination.
CC: Its exciting to think of the potential and what could come of this as the technology expands especially dealing with people with severe disabilities. What is the public reaction or is it too early to tell?
RG: Its a little bit too early, but its selling of course. I can tell you this though, all the e-mail we get and calls that have come into technical support have been positive. People seem to really love the product.
CC: Youll continue on the mainstream side of marketing with the game formats as you push toward applications for disabilities?
RG: Yes. We hope to serve more serious needs in the future. I think the really exciting part of it for the disability movement is weve got people calling and telling us that this is the first time our son has ever been able to participate or compete on an equal footing with their brothers and friends. I met a little girl with cerebral palsy that hated video games because her brothers played them all the time and she couldnt and she came in and did better than her dad and she didnt want to leave. The ability just to provide entertainment and recreation for a lot of people is a tremendous accomplishment. Without recreation and entertainment in your life it could be pretty boring. But youre magazine is more focused on the serious applications right?
CC: No. Not necessarily. We are focused on health, disability and human potential, but we put humor, entertainment, leisure and travel in as well. Its reported that almost every person will experience an average of thirteen years of a disability in their lifetime. We try to address the fact that disabilities are a part of the fabric of life. And the journey of life should be entertaining.
RG: Two things here. One is entertainment and recreation and the other is the persons sense of accomplishment. That I can do this and I can do it well and I can improve at it. Taking up a sport or something and improving at it and doing well at it provides a tremendous sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
CC: How much has been done with different types of disabilities? Such as someone with Downs Syndrome or dyslexia?
RG: To be very honest with you we didnt really even set out to pinpoint certain areas to address. We just started getting calls here from people that were interested in it and this was months before we launched the productwhen we were still doing beta testing. We are just finding new things out all the time.
CC: The applications I see are enormous. What is your next step?
RG: We are going to expand in the marketplace and develop new products. We are moving towards more serious software applications like peak performance programs and the home bio-feedback system and a program we call Get Smart™ which involves memory and creativity and concentration. For us MindDrive is a vehicle to teach people to use the other 90 percent of their brain and yes we will be adding more entertainment but we will probably moving to more serious applications.
CC: What is your connection with Miramax?
RG: Miramax is going to produce a film where you control the plot with your thoughts.
CC: In a theater or is this at home?
RG: Initially over the internet and on video discs. So you will see a movie with a plot that ends one way and you can play it again and you can take the plot and the movie anywhere you want to take it with your thoughts.
CC: What if there is more than one person watching? Is it just whoever who has more will power?
RG: (laughs) Good question. Thats why it isnt in a movie theater and its one on one. At the moment they are working with airplane jumps and things like that.
CC: Are there other applications for this technology?
RG: Yes all kinds. From the military to virtual reality. Why do you need to move your head around in a virtual reality environment when you can think where you want to go?
CC: How many researchers are involved?
RG: About twenty-five from all different fields; anything from neuro-physiologists to parapsychologists.
CC: I had heard the military was doing similar research.
RG: The Air Force is developing technologies for pilots but it is very expensive and we need a $100 product so we are in a whole different world.
CC: Were you happy being the president of Atari?
RG: I developed games there and the first pocket translator and the first pocket computer.
CC: What is your degree in?
RG: I gave a talk at Stanford a while back and one of the students asked me "Where did you get youre engineering degree?" and I said, "Well I dont have an engineering degree." So he said, "How could you have invented and developed all of those products?" and I said, "Well I think engineering is important and we must have engineers but that new products come from new ideas and new ideas come from ones philosophy and not from engineering laws which often define what you cannot do instead of what you can do." He didnt like that at all.
CC: The bio-feedback technology that you have spoken aboutwould that be something people could use to stop smoking?
RG: The first product will be to show people what happens with their heart and how they can change it and control it and the same for their nervous systems and temperatures so they can gain control of their bodies using their mind and from there we will go on to other things.
CC: Do you realize what you are doing could actually change the world?
RG: Well we hope so.
CC: So people could also use the system and learn through bio-feedback to control their negative emotions?
RG: We are working on a screen saver for people at their computer work station that will come up and you can use it to reduce different stress levels in your body and then go back to work.
CC: I congratulate you for getting this off the ground. This is great work that can really change a lot of peoples lives.
RG: Well thanks.
Rodger Wellman, VP & CIO in charge of the Technology Office at Easter Seals, gave us these reactions to this technology and what it could mean for people with disabilities.
Chet Cooper: When did you first experience MindDrive?
Rodger Wellman: It was first brought to my attention by Jerry Bedwell who is the CEO of the Texarkana Easter Seal Society, he read about it in Fortune magazine, they had a little article about Ron Gordon, who is the developer of this technology Jerry called me and faxed along a copy of article and I gave Ron a call and said that we were pretty interested in what your doing and would you mind if we came down to see it for ourselves. This was about nine months ago, actually almost a year ago. Before the product had been introduced, and very much in the beta stage, we first heard about it in an article and basically just called him up and said can we come down and check it out.
CC: What did you think of it? Did you try it out?
RW: Yes, It is kind of one of those things that you really dont believe unless you do it yourself. I thought there has got to be some catch to this. Essentially the interface device is a small plastic cup that sits over a finger. We took turns, Jerry and I, and he flipped the switch without giving us any instructions, telling us we were going down a hill and the task is to go through the chutes without hitting the poles. It turned out to be a good thing, because we hit a few poles about half way down the hill. When our subconscious system picked up on how this was working, then we did really well.
CC: So without any instruction you were able to control this through your mind?
RW: Yes. I dont have anything to compare this to. Once it was explained to me and I consciously tried, it basically worked on the excitement and relaxation functions of the parasympathetic nervous system. In terms of turning, left was excited and right was relaxed and thats how you move the objects on the screen.
CC: What happens if your excited to be relaxed?
RW: (laughs) Apparently they had some real interesting results with a number of different people. I did some reading on their research, the time of day can influence your effectiveness. If you drink a full glass of water before you play the game you will always do better.
CC: What is the reason for that?
RW: It has to do with the Galvanic Skin response and the amount of moisture in your body, it is a very sensitive monitoring instrument, according to Ron and his people, it monitors over seventy body signals that are going out continuously. Of course the software is based on fuzzy logic, artificial intelligence, it screens out a lot of the non-essential signals.
CC: What excited you about the technology with what youre doing at Easter Seals?
RW: The interface excited me because it was cognitive, and not necessarily physical, within the sense of having to be able to control something with hand or finger movements, dexterity, it was based on cognitive signals which meant if I was skiing down a hill in a two dimensional environment that meant that there was great potential that there could be another input on the other hand for functioning in a three dimensional environment. If that could be done with any amount of success it would certainly be possible to drive their electric wheelchairs by thinking about where they wanted to go. Or their car. Even taking it out to the furthest reaches, say infra-red receivers on mechanical joints, maybe a mechanical arm, if you had infra-red receivers on joints, at first youd have to train your fingers, your hands,your wrists, to move, but it seems to me that after a while it would become an unconscious function. The technology at this point in its development is very immature. Its very important that we say this. It would be very bad and risky to try and drive an electric wheelchair with the technology in its present form. They admit fully that this is relatively immature and that they are making headway almost weekly on making it more specific.
My enthusiasm has to do with the long term applications for this with people who have profound of long term disabilities. In its present form I have had two experiences using it with people who are quadriplegic, one of them was an observer in a presentation I gave at the paralympics, just about general internet stuff and Easter Seals, and afterwards I told the audience that I had this MindDrive game and if they wanted to try it they could stick around and we would hook it up. So we did that and people were having a great time and this fellow that had been hanging back in the back of the room, was a quad, and said I would like to try it. I said sure your welcome to try it. I said right now the interface is designed to fit over a finger. He said he had feeling in a couple of his fingers on my left hand, so we picked the one that he thought he had the most feeling in. He got sensations in it from time to time but there was not a lot of mobility in his fingers. We flipped the switch and the software came on and it flat lined at first, the machine takes about 15 seconds or so to dial in the user and either amplify or minimize the user signals that it is getting. His signals were very faint, it took a lot longer, perhaps thirty seconds before it picked up a signal. Once it did it dialed him right in and he was not only able to ski down the hill successfully, but he won. I had a prize, an internet starter kit, I told him it was his first opportunity to take gold. He could not believe that he could get it going. He looked at me and said now me and my buddies have something to do on Friday night. He was pretty excited. I have a friend, Chuck Fisher, our Web-master, who produces the Easter Seal web site, he is also quadriplegic. He has two fingers in his right hand that he has sensation in. We tried both those fingers and had success very similar to the Atlanta experience. We tried some of the fingers he has no sensation in and it flat lined out. It wouldnt respond.
From the limited amount of evaluation that I have done in a very subjective sense I think the technology is very exciting, its immature, its new on the scene, but I do believe that each month it will become more and more sophisticated and more and more capable and people will certainly have access to a mind control for interface for their computer. We have seven communities from around the country who have assisted technology centers and some of them have engineers working in them with access to bio-medical people. They are testing the equipment, two of them extensively, in statistically significant blind site, in an exploratory sense. We think that it is going to be everything we want and more, but not for a while. Obviously you can make other interface attachments, a head band, where the sensors make contact with the skin for people who do not have feeling in their fingers. Most people have feeling up higher, I understand the fingers tend to be a rich source of information, I believe that the sensors can get information off of various parts of the body but the ones that send the strongest signals are certainly the best. I have only seen it used with the finger cuff. I have not seen it cut up and put on a head band.
Ron Gordon and I went down to Los Angeles and met with the Box Top people. Box Top is a major provider and developer of internet pages, etc. their customers include Fox Entertainment, Hard Rock Cafes, Disneyland and Disneyworld. They are right on the leading edge and we went to talk to them about developing Three-D environments over the internet, where people of all ages and ability levels could meet and play.
CC: We are excited about MindDrive as well and look forward to following up on its progress. Good luck.
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