A crack team of neuroscientist engineers from the University of Minnesota have created the first brain-computer interface (BCI) that allows the human user to navigate a 3D space. In testing, subjects flew a virtual helicopter through randomly-placed rings with an 85% success rate, and at an impressive speed: some testers managed to fly through 11 consecutive rings within five minutes. If you want to see it for yourself, there’s a video embedded below.

Just like the BCI-controlled bicycles and cars that we covered back in August, the Minnesota team used an EEG cap – a net of 64 electrodes on the scalp that measure brain waves — and some complex software to work out, in real time, what maneuver the helicopter pilot is trying to perform. To do this, each test subject had to train the system to his individual brain waves by repeatedly moving a cursor on a screen, by thinking about moving his arms, legs, and tongue. The software was also slightly customized for each subject, to increase accuracy.

Then, when everything is calibrated and ready to go, the test subjects can fly the virtual helicopter in a continuous, real-time manner. By imagining moving both hands, the helicopter goes forward; imagine both hands staying still, and the helicopter stops. To rotate, the subject moves a left or right hand. Gaining altitude is achieved by thinking about moving your tongue — and you use your feet to descend. As you can see in the video below, this approach is surprisingly fast and mind-blowingly accurate.

Helicopter control via imaginary body movements

The repercussions for the Minnesotan BCI (it doesn’t seem to have another name) are vast. The most obvious application is in the field of prosthetics: Only last week we heard about a prosthetic arm that allows the user to feel what the arm is feeling — but imagine if the user could also control the arm continuously and in real time. If it the system was accurate and tactile, you’d basically have a bionic arm — and I would be the first in line to have my spindly, geeky arms replaced with robot equivalents.

Then there are people who lack entire gamuts of movement, such as those who have suffered brain injuries or are afflicted by paralysis. The Minnesotan BCI could give these people control over some arms and legs — and then we’re into frickin’ mecha territory! Finally, there are the gaming, augmented reality, and virtual world implications: why use a mouse or gamepad when you can simply think about shooting your BFG 9000?

Read more at Research.gov, or check out the University of Minnesota research paper