Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.

Getty
Show Hide image

Zombie studies: The scientists taking the living dead seriously

The Zombie Research Society is using one of our most popular myths to explore the real world.

On 3 September 2011, between the hours of 2am and 4am, Harvard physician Dr. Steven Schlozman appeared on the radio show “Coast to Coast” to discuss a terrifying new flesh-eating pandemic that consumed even the experts researching it. The segment prompted thousands of listeners to write to Schlozman, pleading for advice about how to spot the impending signs of infection and how to guard their homes from its spread. 

Many were more than a little displeased when they realised that the radio appearance was part of Schlozman’s promotional tour for his book “The Zombie Autopsies”, which recounts the impact of a fictional contagious disease engineered by a villainous hedge fund manager. While the reaction was surreal to Schlozman at the time,  he now attributes the plausibility of his entirely fake disease to a "very involved Venn diagram of characteristics" where the undead also happen to reside.  “People like things to be simple, sexy (in the colloquial sense) and familiar”- and it seems zombies fulfill all of those criteria. 

While the walking dead might seem like a curious obsession for people with PhD’s, Schlozman is far from alone. He is a board member of the Zombie Research Society (ZRS), a group formed in 2007 which is committed to the “historic, cultural and scientific study of the living dead”. It includes hundreds of thousands of zombie devotees around the world, working in film, the military and various scientific fields.

Their interest in zombies stem from a diverse range of factors, and focus on different aspects of what zombies say about society. “I’m no sociologist,” admits Dr.Tara Smith, who’s actually an epidemiology expert at Kent State University and another member of ZRS, “but I think it’s interesting that the 'how' of making zombies has changed over the years to reflect current social ills or fears”. She points to examples like George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead in which a space probe emitting strange radiation creates zombies, reflecting worries of a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War. Modern zombie canon, such as “28 Days Later”, creates zombies out of pathogens which spiral out of control, which Smith believes tallies with our “interest in emerging diseases and new pandemics such as SARS, bird flu and Ebola."

Despite the somewhat sombre implications of why we’re drawn to the zombie myth, zombie experts are in agreement that many kinds of scientific research, theorising and modelling are just more enjoyable when the undead are involved. Some are jarringly practical, such as Canadian researcher Robert Smith?’s (yes, the question mark is part of his name) textbook about how to survive a zombie apocalypse. It uses mathematical models to predict which populations would be worst affected, mainly dense and urban areas, which won't surprise anyone who's taken the London Underground in winter.

Similarly, Smith believes zombies provide an innovative way to model the spread of infectious disease and its prevention. Smith points out that “for any pathogen, in real life or in a zombie outbreak”, understanding how to prevent the infection will be relevant, and she uses zombies as an example while teaching. While her interest in horror movies dates back to childhood, after watching movies like “28 Days Later”, she spotted a link between zombies and what she studies “in ‘real life’” because “most modern zombie tales have a microbial origin". Even then, Smith has her limits of believability– the “living corpse” zombies are a biological impossibility, no matter how many authors try to make them realistic”. But rage zombies, where individuals become incredibly aggressive and can kill/eat people, usually caused by a germ, are more plausible. If that happens, Dr.Smith advocates running for the hills. “Of course, once you’re in a sparsely-populated area,” says Smith,  “then you have to worry about finding resources (including food), so it’s a trade-off between short-term and long-term survival.”

Other forms of writing on zombies expose humanity’s tendency to shoot itself in its collective foot, like Tufts professor Daniel Drezner’s book Theories of International Politics and Zombies, which highlights the weaknesses of different kinds of government when responding to a zombie outbreak.

Schlozman's fascination comes down to what our zombie stories say about our brains, both when zombified and when trying to work out how to escape them. “We have these great big brains, and in every zombie film, we fail to use these brains.” After Schlozman’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, he found himself often unable to sleep, watching late night television as a way to relax. When Night of the Living Dead was playing one night, it spurred him to write a fake medical paper about what a zombie brain would be like, which was then turned into a book with a cult following. For Schlozman, this kind of dilemma was too fun to ignore – as he says, “you can't be a brain doctor, see a zombie (especially the slow moving ones) and not think about the brain”. As for survival, Schlozman is almost philosophical - “Homer survived as a blind poet in pretty barbaric times,” Schlozman says. “I'd say that means we humans need more than ammunition and baked beans.”

With all this work being done on the living dead, it might seem that the members of the ZRS are enthusiastic about the prospects of a zombie outbreak. Should we start hoarding food and invest in an underground bunker somewhere in North Wales?

“Zombies feel so much more relevant and even potent as well as useful as a metaphor,” Schlozman says. “When you make them real, they're a nightmare.” Besides, as Schlozman points out, there are “all sorts of more boring and frankly more dangerous ways to do ourselves in than a zombie outbreak”.