Honda unveils helmet that lets wearer control a robot by thought alone

A human wearing the Honda helmet managed to control the robot Asimo without moving a muscle

An elaborate electronic helmet that allows the wearer to control a robot by thought alone has been unveiled by researchers in Japan.

Scientists at the Honda Research Institute demonstrated the invention today by using it to move the arms and legs of an Asimo humanoid robot.

To control the robot, the person wearing the helmet only had to think about making the movement. Its inventors hope that one day the mind-control technology will allow people to do things like turn air conditioning on or off and open their car boot without putting their shopping down.

The helmet is the first "brain-machine interface" to combine two different techniques for picking up activity in the brain. Sensors in the helmet detect electrical signals through the scalp in the same way as a standard EEG (electroencephalogram). The scientists combined this with another technique called near-infrared spectroscopy, which can be used to monitor changes in blood flow in the brain.

Brain activity picked up by the helmet is sent to a computer, which uses software to work out which movement the person is thinking about. It then sends a signal to the robot commanding it to perform the move. Typically, it takes a few seconds for the thought to be turned into a robotic action.

Honda said the technology was not ready for general use because of potential distractions in the person's thinking. Another problem is that brain patterns differ greatly between individuals, and so for the technology to work brain activity must first be analysed for up to three hours.

The project will also benefit from miniaturisation to make the helmet wearable on the move. At the moment it comes attached to computer equipment the size of a domestic refrigerator.

The demonstration is the latest by the diminutive robot Asimo, which stands slightly higher than four feet (130cm) tall. The multimillion-pound machine has already been taught to walk, talk and fetch drinks. It notched up a world first last year when it conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. One double bass player likened the experience to being conducted by a metronome.

Asimo, which stands for Advanced Step In Innovative Mobility, is one of a very few robots that can walk reliably on two legs. It is fitted with twin cameras in its head and is powered by 34 individual motors. Honda hopes that by 2020 the robot will be cheap enough, and capable enough, to help pensioners and nurses with simple tasks. (, 3.31.2009, Ian Sample, science correspondent, Article history) Link to this video

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