Scientists have been experimenting for some years with electroencephalography (EEG) as an interface for mind-controlled devices. Everything from wheelchairs to drones and even televisions have been controlled using EEG devices. Now a group of researchers has developed the Encephalophone, a musical instrument that can be played using the power of your mind.
The idea of using EEG-signals to make sound isn't particularly new. From the mid-20th century both artists and scientists have been toying with ideas that connect brainwave signals to musical devices.
Lead on the project, Thomas Deuel, a neuroscientist from the University of Washington, claims this device is the first that actively makes sounds controllable by a person, as opposed to previous technology that was much more reactive and produced sounds that more passively reflected EEG signals.
"I am a musician and neurologist, and I've seen many patients who played music prior to their stroke or other motor impairment, who can no longer play an instrument or sing," says Deuel. "I thought it would be great to use a brain-computer instrument to enable patients to play music again without requiring movement."
Deuel and his team set out to make an instrument that could be coupled with a synthesizer to create specific musical notes that correlated with specific EEG patterns. They recently tested out the Encephalophone to see how easily it could be used by participants with no prior training, enlisting a group of 15 adults to try the instrument.
"We first sought to prove that novices – subjects who had no training on the Encephalophone whatsoever – could control the device with an accuracy that was better than random," says Deuel. "These first subjects did quite well, way above chance probability on their very first try."
Currently the instrument focuses on two types of brain signals to trigger its musical sounds – signals connected to the visual cortex, such as closing one's eyes, or signals associated with thoughts of movement. For the novice study group, the more simple eye-closing control gesture understandably proved to be the most effective. But Deuel envisions a more complex array of signals should be able to create a broader variety of musical notes.
The idea would be that simply thinking about moving one's arm up or down could trigger a series of notes along an eight-tone scale. Deuel himself demonstrated the instrument's potential recently when he performed live with a jazz band. Calmly reclining on a comfy armchair, the scientist jammed with the band without moving a muscle.
More than a mere novelty, Deuel envisions the instrument as having the potential to help in rehabilitation scenarios for patients with motor disabilities. His team is set to embark upon further clinical trials later in the year with disabled patients.
"There is great potential for the Encephalophone to hopefully improve rehabilitation of stroke patients and those with motor disabilities," Deuel says.
The team's recent study was described in a report published by the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
Take a look at the instrument in action in the video below.