Scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle are experimenting with how the human brain can work in a virtual reality environment using only direct brain stimulation, rather than traditional sensory signals via sight, hearing or touch. Angela Moore reports.
This man is controlling a computer game with information sent directly to his brain - no visual, auditory, or other sensory information helps him play. University of Washington researchers are testing direct brain stimulation as a way to tell the mind what to do. SOUNDBITE: Rajesh Rao, Professor of Computer Science & Engineering, University of Washington, saying (English): "The fundamental question that we were asking here was 'Is it possible to send information from artificial sensors or computer-created worlds directly into the brains so that the brain can start to understand that information and make use of it to solve a task?'" Using this device attached to the head, signals are sent directly to the brain, telling the gamer whether to move their character in a maze forward or down. It's called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS. SOUNDBITE: Justin Abernethy, research assistant, Institute for Learning & Brain Science, University of Washington, saying (English): "What's going to happen is the TMS is going to present the phosphene to me, which is a brief flash of light represented in my brain and whenever I see that phosphene I'll know there's a wall in this maze and my job is to go down the ladder. Whenever I don't see a phosphene, so I don't see a flash of light, my job is just to go forward in the hall and get out of the maze." Researchers believe such non-invasive brain stimulation could one day have many real world uses, including help for the visually impaired. SOUNDBITE: Rajesh Rao, Professor of Computer Science & Engineering, University of Washington, saying (English): "If you look at virtual reality today, we use goggles, headsets and displays, but ultimately it's the brain that creates reality for us. So, you can look at in the future the possibility that the experience of virtual reality could be much more richer if we can send much richer information into the brain directly. So, for example, the sense of touch, maybe even the sense of smell or taste, which we cannot do today. The kind of approach we are taking and that we're suggesting here could potentially lead to much richer virtual reality experiences, as well as lead to new technologies to assist people with sensory deficits, for example, the blind, using non-invasive brain stimulation technologies." While researchers think the future is bright for direct brain stimulation, it could be about 20 years until every day commercial use.