By Zak Stone
While a remote-control helicopter may be exciting enough to entertain today's kids, the children of tomorrow might only settle on one they can control with their brainwaves. Such a toy is currently in the works at educational technology company Puzzlebox, which has been making brain-controlled helicopters for the past two years and is using Kickstarter to raise funds to mass-produce the exotic technology.
The company envisions the product being used for "entertainment, personal training of mental focus or relaxation, and as an aid to teaching science and technology from middle school through to university level." The toy, called the Puzzlebox Orbit, is a system in three parts: a flying sphere (the helicopter), a pyramid-shaped remote that steers the helicopter with infrared LEDS, and a headset that reads brainwaves and signals data to the pyramid.
That final part is made by brain-computer interface technology company NeuroSky, and uses electroencephalography (EEG) (a fancy word for brainwave detection) to monitor the brain's changing states of electric activity. The hardware can tell if the brain is concentrating or relaxing, for example, and sends that information to the pyramid, causing the helicopter to take off.
The technology builds on Puzzlebox's work creating products that help students learn concentration skills. When the helicopter "pilots" don the special headset and begin to concentrate, the sphere levitates or flies across the room, depending on the pre-programmed flight path the user has determined before take-off. (That's as far as the technology has gotten at this point--sadly, the helicopter can't fully read your thoughts, and some pre-programming is required.) You also program the mental state that will cause the helicopter to lift off--whether that's relaxation or concentration. If your attention fades, the Orbit will land. Crashes are inevitable, so the helicopter is designed for durability, with protections for the helicopter blades.
In their Kickstarter video, Puzzlebox CTO Steve Castellotti calls the chopper a "toy as well as your introduction to neuroscience." If the project is funded, the Puzzlebox team plans to not only sell the brain-controlled helicopter "but also release guides and software for taking them apart to rebuild or customize," as they write on their Kickstarter. "We will publish lessons on how mind-controlled devices actually work and how infrared signals steer the aircraft. We are testing a hypothesis that this form of cooperation can succeed commercially while aiding the pursuit of science and education."
Copyright 2012 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.