We’ve all seen step-by-step instructions for baking a cake or assembling a bookshelf, but what about do-it-yourself tips for building your own mind-controlled wheelchair? That's just what neuroengineering firm Emotiv has posted on its website for researchers and electronic hobbyists who want to try their hand at turning a simple electric wheelchair into a conveyance of the future.

Emotiv is known for marketing high-resolution, wireless electroencephalography (EEG) systems, devices that record the electrical activity of the brain. One example of Emotiv’s EEG systems is a headset that detects “subconscious emotional states, facial expressions and user-trained mental commands, which can control existing and custom applications and games as if by magic,” according to the Emotiv website.

“The Emotiv EPOC Neuroheadset was conceived in 2003 and commercially released in 2009,” said Emotiv Lifesciences CTO and Research CEO Geoffrey Mackellar, PhD, in an interview with Healthline. “Our idea was to democratize brain research and to make brain-computer interfaces into a mainstream consumer technology."

Other researchers and electronics enthusiasts have taken Emotiv's products in exciting and unexpected directions.

"We don't specifically work on wheelchairs; our product is a technology platform which is being taken up in a multitude of applications. The recent availability of the Emotiv EPOC Neuroheadset has resulted in many hobbyists developing their own wheelchair projects, including the Puzzlebox group, which developed the instructable featured on our website,” Mackellar said.  

Could I Build a Mind-controlled Wheelchair?

According to the instructable, a brain-controlled wheelchair “could be useful for people who are paralyzed and unable to control parts of their body enough to physically activate the joystick of a [standard] electric wheelchair,” giving them more independence and the freedom to commute without assistance.

A few hobbyists have already built the Puzzlebox model, and several other EPOC users have posted videos of their brain-controlled wheelchairs on YouTube, said Mackellar.

“The level of skill required to modify the wheelchair is that of an electronic hobbyist or technician,” he said. “The joystick system is dismantled and the appropriate control switches are replaced by electronic switches linked to the PC that is running the EPOC software. It's not too complex, but a bit beyond the skill level of the average person.”

This do-it-yourself project might require a bit of technical skill, but Mackellar said the cost of additional components, including the EPOC neuroheadset, a PC, and an Arduino controller, are significantly less than the price of a basic electric wheelchair.

“The system works using standard EPOC mental commands and facial expression controls, which are built into the EPOC system (total cost $299). The software link to control the hardware is free from the Puzzlebox website…and the additional electronics, wiring, and packaging for the system costs about $20,” he said. “The software runs on a Windows machine (many cheap Windows tablets can fully support EPOC and Arduino), so in the worst case a suitable computer would cost a couple of hundred dollars.”

The Future of Brain-controlled Technology

“There are many research institutions around the world using EEG caps to drive wheelchairs, and there may well be commercial products reaching the market in a few years as a result of these efforts,” Mackellar said.

The brain-controlled wheelchair has not yet been widely adopted, and any commercial device would need proper safety trials and FDA approval before release. But Mackellar said he has high hopes for the future of brain-controlled chairs and prosthetics.  

“This is an area of very intense research at present, and this will only be enhanced by the recently announced Human Brain projects in the U.S. and Europe,” he said. “Ultimately, even profoundly disabled people will be able to gain some independence through the use of mentally controlled chairs and prosthetics, and in many their function will be restored and possibly even enhanced.”

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