ROCK 'N ROLL SCIENCE: PLAYING THE BODY ELECTRIC
Eyal in Dr. Dave's Biocontroller at the Center for Really Neat Research
"I can't play this game," says 7-year-old Ken sadly, looking wistfully at the Super Mario video game on the computer screen in front of him. "My hands won't work."
"We're not going to use your hands," says Dr. Dave. "We're going to use your arms and your forehead." Strapping velcro armbands containing medical electrodes onto Ken's wasted forearm muscles, Dr. Dave coaches the boy: "Flex your left arm. Now look at the screen -- Mario's moved to the left! You did that!" For the first time in weeks, Ken laughs out loud.
"Dr. Dave" is Dr. David Warner, a neuroscientist, co-founder of the Medicine Meets VR conference, founder of the Center for Really Neat Research in Syracuse, New York, and self-proclaimed "power nerd on a mission." His mission: using new information technologies, including virtual reality, to empower and improve quality of life for those -- especially children -- whose lives have been devastated by illness, accident or disability. "We're using information technologies to help these kids reach their full potential," Dave tells me, as he wires up his quadriplegic patients.
Dr. Dave specializes in international medical intelligence, which, he says, means providing the best possible health care to everyone on the planet. "Leave me a message that tells me how we can make the world a better place," says Dave on his answering machine, and he means it.
His Institute for Informational Informatics (I3) is a non-profit organization committed to the pro-social use of information systems, using them to intervene to "make a real difference" in people's lives. "It's healing with information, fusing high-tech with high touch," explains Warner. "It's rock 'n roll science -- science with an attitude, technology transfer with heart: we came, we cared, we cured."
Recognizing that "the human nervous system is a very sophisticated information processing system," Warner searched for a link between the nervous system and the outside world. His search led him to the BioMuse: a revolutionary "biocontroller" developed by audio-physiologist Hugh Lusted and electrical engineer Ben Knapp which processes human bioelectric signals into computer commands.
Using standard medical electrodes taped or velcroed to the body, the BioMuse picks up the bioelectric signals generated by any muscle movement (EMG), eye motion (EOG), heartbeat (EKG) or brain wave activity (EEG); amplifies, analyzes, filters and digitizes these "biosignals"; and then feeds them to a computer (or any electronic device) which converts them into realtime commands.
Recognizing the biocontroller's potential to revolutionize human-computer interaction, Warner founded the Human Performance Institute at California's Loma Linda University Medical Center and began using it for pediatric rehabilitation. To start, he placed the BioMuse "EyeController" headband on Crystal, an 18-month-old "C1 quadriplegic" paralyzed from the neck down by a car accident. Coached by Warner, Crystal moved her eyes to the right, then left; instantly, a biocontrolled "smiley face" cursor scooted right, then left, across a computer screen. "Her eyes became her hands," explains a jubilant Warner. "Whatever she saw, she could control, just by moving her eyes. For the first time, she could interact with the world again."
Other success stories followed. Wired to the BioMuse, seven-year-old Ashley, paralyzed since birth by a spinal chord injury, can use her well-disciplined cheek and forehead muscles to play computer games, fly a remote-controlled model airplane and navigate through virtual worlds. "For Ashley," says her grandfather proudly, "Virtual reality is reality." Adds Warner: "VR will be her way to express herself, to reach her full potential. This will change her life."
With a scrunch of his forehead and the wink of an eye, eight-year-old Trent, paralyzed by a car accident, operates the BioCar: a Warner-modified, remote-controlled Radio Shack car with a tiny video camera mounted on its roof. Zooming the car up and down hospital corridors, and wearing VR glasses linked to the camera, Trent can "see" what the car sees: the world outside his hospital bed. Virtual reality? "No, this is the real thing!" says Trent happily. The same system, notes Warner, can be adapted easily to allow Trent, and others like him, to control wheelchairs, computers and other electronic devices.
"These kids literally play their way through rehab," says Warner. "They think they're playing; we know they're rehabilitating. But the real goal of this 'augmentative communication' is enhanced expressiveness. You've got to do more than rehabilitate patients -- you have to bring their spirit back to life, so they can become functional, fully expressive members of our information culture. This technology lets them express their soul."
What better way than through playing music? Recognizing that "the body is literally a symphony of electrical voices" and that "each body electric sounds unique," inventors Lusted and Knapp configured the BioMuse to convert bioelectric signals into the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) commands which control music synthesizers -- turning even impaired humans into living MIDI controllers. When Warner hooked the BioMuse to the dysfunctional arms of a severely depressed and unmotivated paraplegic teenage boy, "We gave him a rock-and-roll guitar sound, and with the limited muscle activity he had left, he turned into Jimi Hendrix for 10 minutes. Talk about 'air guitar'!"
Anthony Lloyd, Vice President of BioControl Systems, Inc., the Palo Alto, California company founded to research, develop and market products based on this new "biocontroller" technology, has spent many years working to rehabilitate the disabled using the BioMuse. "I visited a 29-year-old man who'd suffered severe brain damage seven years before," recalls Lloyd. "He was in and out of consciousness, his muscles in spasm, arms locked into his chest. His family had no idea whether they were getting through to him. I put a BioMuse armband on one of his arms and said to him very quietly: 'If you like, you can play music. At your leisure, you can tense your arm muscle, and play a musical sound.'
"We had connected the BioMuse to a synthesizer playing an orchestra. We waited for perhaps ten seconds; then we saw him tense his arm, and out came the sound of a full-blown orchestra. His head moved back, his mouth opened, his eyes opened wide. It was as though he woke up internally. For the first time, his family knew there was somebody in there. Then we put a sensor on his heart, so he was literally playing music with his heartbeat. At long last, he could communicate -- he could develop a language through music. Maybe he can't play piano keys with his fingers, but he can play music with his heart and mind. Maybe he can't walk, but he can live again."
Chairman of the Technical Task Force of the American Telemedicine Association, Waner's current mission is the global distriubtion of medical intelligence to allow patients to manage their own health (or as he says, "finding ways to turn missile money into medical money.") He co-heads Project StrongAngel, a civil military operation which offes networked, hi-tech medical assistance to those in disaster situations such as floods and wars.
Fundraising and "networking for WWW -- World Wide Wellness", Warner's current projects also include creating a "wellness environmental chamber" using VR images and sound to reduce heart rate and muscle tension; and administering CareWeb, a school-based program which provides integrated health care for disadvantaged children.
And at his Center for Really Neat Research, Warner and his team are busily developing their own biocontrollers - fashioned of, among other oddments, old wetsuits and Power Ranger Actions figures - including TNG 1,2 and 3 (for "Totally Neat Gadget") which pick up biosignals and transmit them to Warner's NeatTools software for full input/output control. The aim, says Warner, is to make these tools ubiquitously available to disabled children like Eyal -- for free.
Says Warner: "We can use new technology to make and keep us well. Virtual reality can change reality -- it can make the world a better place for all of us."
For more information about Warner's work, visit his many websites, including www.mindtel.com and www.pulsar.org
Photos courtesy Dr. Dave Warner
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