Out of Scope

 
 
By Tim Moran  |  Posted 2011-07-28
 
 
 

The (Y)ear of the Cat?

Sometimes, technology is used to invent things that are so right that we wonder how we ever got along without them: the Internet, smartphones, GPS and HDTV. Other times, advanced tech is used to create a device so bizarre that rather than wondering how we managed without it, we wonder how it was ever thought of in the first place.

Enter “necomimi” from Neurowear, a “new communication tool” in the form of a cat’s ears. You read that right. Necomimi makes the wearer look not unlike a digital Playboy Bunny. It’s unclear what this device is supposed to accomplish, but we get that when the ears are perked up, you are—if not happy—at least “concentrating”; when they drop down, you are “relaxed.” The cool thing about them is that your brainwaves make them flip and flop.

The ears are not yet available, but they are supposed to be released by the end of the year. Good luck, Neurowear. You never know what's going to happen: Who would have thought a decade ago that we would not look askance at someone walking around with a Bluetooth earpiece and talking into thin air? Well, I do look askance at such people, but that may be just me. Now let me dig around for my old coonskin hat.

Rockabye Robo Baby

Meet Pneuborn-7II and Pneuborn-13, the progeny of researchers at Osaka University’s Hosoda Lab. (The names are a play on the pneumatic muscles used as actuators throughout their bodies.) Little “7II” is about the size of a seven-month-old infant and is designed to study motor development. Baby 7II contains a learning algorithm that allows the tot to crawl forward and roll over. Brother (or sister?) “13” models a 13-month-old child and is designed to study the effect the musculoskeletal structure has on the emergence of bipedal walking.

Clearly, these robots are made for research, not home use. And, thank heaven, they are not supposed to be substitutes for real children—although, if we look far enough out ... who knows?

A Thoughtful Device

Technology under development by a team of researchers at Brown University, the Providence VA Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital can translate brain signals into commands for electronic devices. BrainGate is an implanted neural interface that can detect and record brain signals, allowing people who have lost the use of arms or legs to control a computer.

The university reports that the device has allowed a woman with paralysis (tetraplegia) to control a computer cursor for the last 2.7 years, demonstrating that neural activity can be read and converted into action. According to Dr. Leigh Hochberg, director of the BrainGate pilot clinical trial: “After 1,000 days, a woman who has no functional use of her limbs and is unable to speak can reliably control a cursor on a computer screen using only the intended movement of her hand.”

In other words, the woman “performed two point-and-click tasks each day by thinking about moving the cursor with her hand.” In both tasks, she averaged better than 90 percent accuracy. Researchers had wondered whether such signals could be tapped inside the brain—especially for an extended period of time. It appears that they can be, which makes BrainGate very exciting.