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Jul 03, 2006

Brain waves allows disabled to take a virtual stroll

From The Observer

A new 'virtual helmet' which harnesses the power of brain waves is allowing severely disabled people to feel as if they can walk and move again, opening up the prospect of using the mind to help them control wheelchairs, computers and even false limbs.

Just by imagining their feet moving, patients using wheelchairs can again experience what it feels like to stroll down a high street, thanks to the work of British scientists who have found a new way of using the power of thought. They have devised the helmet which can link brain wave patterns to a virtual reality system, allowing the wearer to enter an illusory world of movement.

The new system has been tried out for the first time by an Austrian man who became a paraplegic after a swimming accident. Tom Schweiger was injured on holiday in Greece seven years ago when a huge wave swept him on to rocks, severing the spinal cord in his neck and leaving him paralysed apart from some movement in his left arm.

Last week 31-year-old Schweiger was able to enter a different virtual world when the scientists from his home country and a team at University College London tested the new system. When he was asked by researchers to think about moving either his foot or his hand, the changes in his brain waves - or electroencephalogram (EEG) signals - were recorded by electrodes on the top of his head. These were then turned into a control signal which was linked up to the virtual reality system.

Schweiger was given special 3D glasses to wear so that the images created in the 'virtual cave' created for the experiment, made up of a four-sided room complete with stereo sound and projected images, gave him the illusion of walking through a street. Different characters appeared on the screen and talked to him and he was asked to respond...


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