BBC trials 'mind-control' TV remote

2 min read

It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon. You’re catching up with your favourite shows on the BBC iPlayer, but you’re just too tired to get up and find the remote control. So why not use your brainwaves to switch programmes instead?

That could one day be possible, following experiments carried out by the BBC to investigate the use of technology that allows people to control their televisions with only their brainwaves.

The mind control technology could ultimately give people with severe disabilities, motor neurone disease or locked in syndrome the ability to control digital media by thought alone, according to Cyrus Saihan, head of business development at BBC Digital.

The device, which monitors a user’s brainwaves, could offer a lifeline to people with severe disabilities
The device, which monitors a user’s brainwaves, could offer a lifeline to people with severe disabilities

“For anybody who can’t use standard remote controls for any reason, this technology has the potential to open up this completely new world of digital content that you and I may take for granted,” he said.

The technology could also allow able-bodied people to access TV programmes much more quickly and easily, he said. “This is building on work we have done using voice control on consoles like the Xbox One, for example, to get to content as quickly and easily as possible.”

Working with London-based company This Place, the BBC developed a prototype mind control TV using a low-cost headset equipped with sensors that measure electrical activity in the brain.

The electroencephalography (EEG) brainwave reading headset has a sensor that rests on the user’s forehead, and another on a clip that attaches to the ear.

The user can choose to operate the device in either “concentration” or “meditation” mode. If they choose meditation, the headset and app monitor their level of relaxation, which is displayed on a volume bar on the side of the screen. “Then, when a certain threshold is reached for that type of electrical activity, it sends a signal to the device on our tablet which in turn sends a signal to the TV,” said Saihan.

During the experiment, 10 users were given a headset to wear, and sat in front of the TV. The users either concentrated hard or relaxed their brain until the volume bar showed the threshold had been reached, at which point a signal was sent to the TV to open the application, an experimental form of iPlayer.

The users were then presented with a screen showing the five most popular programmes on iPlayer at that time. Each programme was highlighted, in turn, for ten seconds. To select a programme the users waited until the show was highlighted, and then relaxed until the volume bar again reached the necessary threshold.

Some users taking part in the experiment found the technology easier to use than others. A few were able to pick up the technique immediately and begin watching programmes, while others found it harder to time their levels of meditation with the ten seconds in which their chosen programme was highlighted, for example.

The technology is still at a very early stage, and currently only allows users to select either “on” or “off”, said Saihan. Whether the idea takes off will ultimately depend on how the technology evolves over the coming years, including both the sensors and neuroscientists’ understanding of brain activity, he said. “It’s very early stages in terms of this type of technology, so (this experiment) was very much a toe in the water for us,” he said.

The system is an internal BBC prototype, designed to give the organisation’s programme makers, technologists and other users an idea of how the technology might be used in the future.