The concept of mind controlled computers might sound a bit far fetched right now, even with the incredible rate at which technology is growing, but for one Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis patient it is just another day in her life.
Heide Pfüetzner called her 2007 diagnosis a “personal catastrophe”, but six years later she is celebrating a personal triumph as an exhibit of her paintings, all created by her mind controlled a computer, makes its debut.
The exhibit titled Brain on Fire, opened last Friday on Easdale, a small island off the west coast of Scotland. Visitors to the Easdale Island Hall witness vibrantly coloured digital paintings created by the paralysed artist using a computer programme that lets her control digital brushes, shapes, and colours by concentrating on specific points on the screen.
“For the first time, this project gives me the opportunity to show the world that the ALS has not been the end of my life,” said Pf√etzner, who “brain paints” using Intendix Painting, the creators of “user-ready brain-computer interface applications”. From her wheelchair she uses two PC monitors while wearing what can only be described as a swimming cap with electrodes on it (Yes, it is a lot more technical than this but I’m just trying to give you a visual).
One monitor displays the various tools which Heide can call on, the other functions like a canvas, showing the picture as it evolves.
How does the system work? It’s constantly flashing images of various tools and as she focusses on the tool she wants to select she counts the flashes, causing her brain activity to spike. The computer is then able to determine which tool she is focussing on by comparing the timing of the brainwaves to the timing of the desired flashing tool.
Before becoming ill, Pfüetzner admitted: “I had never been fond of technical equipment, and despised working with a computer.” Now she is very happy that technology has allowed her the ability to once again create art and reconnect with her old life.
And they are more cases of such uses of similar technology, allowing a man with locked-in syndrome to tweet through eye movements, for example, and a quadriplegic woman to control a robotic arm to manipulate objects.
And Pfüetzner hopes to help in whatever way she can as she continues to work closely with a brain-computer interface team at the University of Wurzburg.