Doing through thinking – (Unpublished article)
Imagine you are sailing in the beautiful blue seas off Hawaii. You have a cold drink in one hand, a chunk of coconut in the other and you relax back into your lounger, enjoying the blazing sun and cloudless skies. As you think about where you want to go so the boat responds, the wheel turns and it changes direction, following your thoughts. A sci-fi idea? A vision of the future? No. The fantasy that started Dr. Andrew Junker developing the Cyberlink, a piece of technology that is literally “hands
free”, that allows humans to control computers through the power of thought.
It is technology that has changed lives. People with conditions that limit the ability to control their muscles, such as Cerebral Palsy or Motor Neurone Disease (MND), can communicate, can take control, through three small sensors attached to their foreheads. These pick up brain activity and nerve impulses, process them and turn them into computer commands. A combination of facial muscle tension, lateral eye movement and alpha brainwaves create eleven “brain fingers” that can be programmed to move the mouse, or control attached devices such as a midi player.
Andrew began working on Cyberlink in the early „90s after he left his job
as a research scientist for the United States Air Force. There he had investigated how brainwaves reflect peoples‟ inner states. It was this idea
of people using technology “to look inside themselves” that first drove
the development of the Cyberlink. After he had appeared on television steering his boat through his forehead the idea gained impetus through
the physical impairment community, who he describes as, “early adopters, because they have a need and something that really drives them to find a solution”.
This impetus was aided by Andrew‟s former employers who gave him funds to develop its use to enhance pilot control, as a wearable computer. He is clear that military use was “synergetic” with use by people with
disabilities and he has several stories of its life changing effects, such as the man in a persistent vegetative state who typed, “Hello.” Or the man
with MND who as well as communicating with family and friends also takes on-line courses and manages his finances through the Cyberlink. Other effects, such as how Richard a Swedish boy with Cerebral Palsy began to learn to relax his body in order to create an Alpha brainwave, have yet to be properly understood.
As yet it is not technology for everyone, however. There are only about 350 users world-wide, about ten of whom are in the UK.
One such user is Karl Dean, a web developer who has Cerebral Palsy. He ordinarily uses a head-pointer and has found the Cyberlink less efficient. Intending to use it to control the mouse he found that, “most days my
brainwaves were different. Some days I could do the easy labyrinth (one of the training games) under 20 seconds but other days it took me over one or two minutes to complete. It can take a lot of concentration and it depends on how I‟m feeling.”
Karl has been investigating Cyberlink with Pete Coia, a Principal Clinical Psychologist, to evaluate its use for his clients, adults with profound and
multiple learning difficulties, as, “a reliable contingency,” a consistent
means of effecting their environment. He believes the software works well and it is comparatively easy to teach carers how to adjust the system to users‟ capabilities at each session. The difficulty is in reliably
identifying those for whom this technology will work. “It is something that some individuals will get a lot of benefit from. Some will just get a headache,” Pete says, particularly as, “It is expensive on a „will it work?‟ basis. Cheap if you know it will work.” One reason why Andrew has
instigated a „try before you buy‟ scheme.
This is nascent technology and there is a need for further research, particularly into it‟s potential for use by children. As Karl warns, “It‟s
important that people‟s hopes for technology do not run away with reality. For example if someone has MND, particularly in the later stages the amount of time, effort and support required to master using Cyberlink may be impossible!” Although for others it can become the only means of communicating.
It‟s inventor Andrew Junker recognises the current limitations. Despite
its eleven years of development he sees Cyberlink as a work in progress. “We are sitting on the beginning of something big,” he says. What the
end is nobody yet knows. But they are all very excited about the prospect of getting there. As Karl says, “As my brain linked up to the computer you
could say I almost became a cyborg (half human and half machine). In 10 or 20 years time I think I will be operating my computer, TV, videos, hi-fi, opening and closing curtains and doors and even driving my wheelchair by just thinking!”
John Galloway May 2003
Cyberlink is developed by Brain Activated Technologies. More information can be found at www.brainfingers.com
Karl Dean‟s website, http://www.headpointer.co.uk has an in depth report
of his experience of using Cyberlink including analysis of his learning progress, commentaries on some of the games and comparisons of different access devices.