On the laptop in front of me, a small cube floats on the screen. My instructor says to think "left," and like a scene from "Star Wars," I use my thoughts to move the cube left. I clear my mind and the cube returns to the center.
It's not a Jedi mind trick. What I'm using is an application being developed by Accenture and Philips that could one day let consumers use their thoughts to control things in the home, such as turning off the lights or cranking up the volume on the TV.
In Accenture's Amsterdam office, Bob Koppes, a consultant at the company, helped me sync up my thoughts with the software via a headset with 14 sensors dipped in lens fluid that cover my skull. This isn't the most comfortable experience, but the headset's developer, Emotiv, is working on a version that's easier to wear.
The sensors on my head communicate wirelessly with the laptop. I'm told that will soon be replaced by a tablet that's equipped with a menu of different connected devices and functions displayed in a virtual carousel. So imagine scrolling through the menu by thinking "left" or "right," or adjusting the TV volume with "louder" or "softer." The lights? Think "on" or "off."
Of course, with the growth of Internet-connected devices, smartphone apps can already make it easier to control electronics and appliances in your home. But Koppes said his office took the lead on this project after a co-worker was diagnosed last year with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a disease of the central nervous system that causes patients to lose muscle control. He wanted to help his colleague live more independently and convinced Philips, one of the biggest medical device makers, to help create a system for thought-controlled appliances.
The pursuit of brain-controlled electronics has been around for decades. After years of work, researchers at Duke University developed a system in 2001 that let monkeys control robot arms with brain signals. Last year, Samsung partnered with Roozbeh Jafari, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Dallas, to experiment with ways to let people use thoughts to control a tablet, such as selecting contacts and songs from a playlist, according to MIT Technology Review.
Emotiv, the company working with Philips and Accenture, sells neuroheadsets for about $300 that can control toy robots and track your focus.
For Philips and Accenture, their system is still years off from being available to the public as it faces challenges such as getting regulatory approval. There's also the big question of whether the technology will be covered by patients' insurers.
Currently the companies are looking for more partners to expand the number of devices and features that can work with the system, as well as potential users. The companies said their technology has drawn interest from people who've been paralyzed in accidents as well as those suffering from diseases that impair movement.