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March 16, 2013

How people move things with their minds

(Continued)

TEMPE, Ariz. —

That's not the only reason that companies like Apple and Google aren't yet working on devices that read our minds (as far as we know). Another one is that the devices aren't portable. And then there's the little fact that they require brain surgery.

A different class of brain-scanning technology is being touted on the consumer market and in the media as a way for computers to read people's minds without drilling into their skulls. It's called electroencephalography, or EEG, and it involves headsets that press electrodes against the scalp. In an impressive 2010 TED Talk, Tan Le of the consumer EEG-headset company Emotiv Lifescience showed how someone can use her company's EPOC headset to move objects on a computer screen.

Skeptics point out that these devices can detect only the crudest electrical signals from the brain itself, which is well-insulated by the skull and scalp. In many cases, consumer devices that claim to read people's thoughts are in fact relying largely on physical signals like skin conductivity and tension of the scalp or eyebrow muscles.

Robert Oschler, a robotics enthusiast who develops apps for EEG headsets, believes the more sophisticated consumer headsets like the Emotiv EPOC may be the real deal in terms of filtering out the noise to detect brain waves. Still, he says, there are limits to what even the most advanced, medical-grade EEG devices can divine about our cognition. He's fond of an analogy that he attributes to Gerwin Schalk, a pioneer in the field of invasive brain implants. The best EEG devices, he says, are "like going to a stadium with a bunch of microphones: You can't hear what any individual is saying, but maybe you can tell if they're doing the wave." With some of the more basic consumer headsets, at this point, "it's like being in a party in the parking lot outside the same game."

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