Brain-computer interfaces

The Emotiv Insight headband is a brain-computer interface (BCI) which turns thoughts into computer commands.

Building the interface

Brainstorming a brain-computer interface for connected devices.

Smart lights

Philips is working on smart lighting systems that the ALS program interfaces with.

User sends brain commands

Using his or her thoughts or other simple facial movements, a person can send mind commands through the Emotiv headset’s EEG (Electroencephalography) or EMG (Electromyography) sensors.

Wearable display shows navigation interface

The user navigates the interface in his or her field of vision, through the wearable display, scrolling through the navigation and selecting an action by thinking simple commands, such as “down” or “left.”

Digital application reads commands and connects devices

Brain commands received from the Emotiv headset are processed through the Accenture and Philips digital application to control the interface and connect Philips Smart products.

Smart products are activated

Connected to the application, a user can turn on a Philips light or television, or call for medical help, just by using his or her thoughts.

This Life-Changing Philips Hue Hack Makes The Internet Of Everything Mean Something

New technology from Philips and Accenture lets ALS patients control home electronics using a brainwave-reading headband.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the Internet of things and connected devices: A computerized world where our refrigerators, thermostats, gym equipment, house lights, and cars are all connected to the Internet and aggregating information in real time. Although a lot of innovations in the area are admittedly overhyped, some new projects are showing an unintended benefit for the Internet of things: Connected devices could dramatically improve quality of life for the severely disabled.

On Tuesday, Accenture and Philips unveiled a prototype, proof-of-concept headset-and-software combo that lets patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, turn lights on and off with their brain waves. The technology uses a brainwave-reading headband called the Emotiv Insight, which is not manufactured by Philips nor Accenture, to trigger power switches by having the user think about them. Philips stresses that the proof-of-concept is not currently on market, and is not undergoing testing as a medical device. Emotiv’s headband then interfaces with Philips’ Hue line of smart lights and other connected devices from the company.

The ALS-light controlling system is part of a larger wave of brain-computer interfaces. Primarily used for gaming platforms which allow users to control avatars with different brain waves, brain-computer interfaces have been around for decades but have been difficult to use because of the sensitivity of brain sensors and difficult calibration processes. However, improvements in sensor technologies resulting from the smartphone boom have meant better, cheaper sensors for brainwave-reading tools.

Thibaut Sevestre, an innovation lead for Philips IT who worked on the project, told Fast Company the product’s genesis came from an Accenture employee with a family member suffering from ALS. After that employee reached out within his organization, a partnership with Philips was started and a proof-of-concept was unveiled several months later.

“It’s a piece of software that bridges together the inputs a patient could give, and allows them to exert control on objects and communicate with people,” Sevestre said. “We wanted to see how you can use different kinds of interfaces--tablets, smartphone apps where you can still touch, combined with eye tracking to control things. When you're not able to move eyes, you can use EEG headsets to learn the intention of the patient and to use that to control.”

One of the major issues for Philips and Accenture was building a user interface accessible by the severely disabled. Announcement of the project publicly was delayed due to Philips being affected by the MH17 crash in the Ukraine. The Accenture-Philips project follows years of research by other organizations into the feasibility of improving the quality of life of ALS patients with brain-computer interfaces. The late Scott Mackler, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who had ALS, for instance, built a home-brewed system which let him change channels on his remote control using his mind.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that one of the Philips employees who died in the MH17 crash was working on the ALS project. According to a spokesperson for the company, neither of the Philips employees who died in last month’s plane crash were involved with this project but all corporate announcements were delayed out of respect for the victims and their families.

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