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Sci-Tech

Watch five men control a flying balloon shark with their minds

Using a non-invasive brain-control interface, engineer Chip Audette controlled a balloon shark by closing his eyes.

A team of five controllers worked together to fly the shark. Chip Audette

We've seen mind-controlled drones, mind-controlled accessories and even mind-controlled robotic prosthetics, but never before had we seen a mind-controlled shark.

Until now. And it is glorious.

The project was headed up (so to speak) by researcher and engineer Chip Audette of Open BCI, an organisation dedicated to open-source exploration and development of the brain-control technologies. And no, it's not a "useful" project in the sense that controlling a drone or a hand is useful, but it could help draw attention to what OpenBCI is trying to achieve.

It's not an actual shark (although that would be amazing), but a remote-controlled flying shark balloon, made by Air Swimmers. These are helium-filled mylar balloons that come with an infrared controller. A receiver on the balloon controls the tail, which acts as a rudder to steer the shark left, right, up and down.

For this project, Audette decided to replace the physical controller with electroencephalographic brain control. In previous projects, this involved a human operator wearing an EEG cap training quadcopter command software to recognise certain thoughts as directions. Thinking of making a fist with the right hand, for example, would tell the copter to turn right, where a left-hand fist would tell the copter to turn left.

Audette's hardware and software, he said in a post on IEEE Spectrum, was not as sophisticated as what you might find in a university lab setting. He paired a $450 board that runs on a 32-bit processor, able to record eight neural channels at once, with an EEG that consists of just two electrodes attached to the controller's scalp, as opposed to an entire cap array.

This makes detecting a single thought nigh impossible.

"To accommodate this limitation, I chose to alter my expectations for how the system would work. Instead of looking for specific thoughts, I looked for an EEG signature that would be naturally easy to detect and that I could use to signal intent. The easiest such signal occurs whenever you close your eyes: For most people, when the eyes are closed, a strong 10-hertz brain wave begins across the back of the head, where the brain's visual processing centres are located," Audette wrote.

How the system ties together. Chip Audette

"So to control my shark, I decided to focus on the brain signature of closing my eyes."

With the controller modified and connected to an Arduino to receive commands from the EEG signal, Audette was successfully able to make the shark swim forward by closing his eyes. But that single signal was not able to control the other four directions, left, right, up and down.

This is where the capabilities of the OpenBCI board shone: while most BCIs are only able to receive from a single reference electrode, each of OpenBCI's channels can receive from its own electrode. Audette was able to hook himself and four of his friends up to the board, each controlling one of the shark's direction, to swim it through the air.

And that's something we've never seen before: five minds, working as one mind, to control a helium-filled shark balloon on its journey to greatness.

You can read more about Audette's process in his IEEE Spectrum article, and on his blog.