Remote-Controlled Humans

(originally published on 1/10/06)

Back in the late '90s, scientists at Tokyo University perfected a remote-control device that allowed them to manipulate cockroaches. The device, which was surgically implanted on the insect's back, sent impulses through electrodes that had replaced the host's antennae. It allowed researchers to direct the roach along a specific path, forward or backward, left or right. The tiny backpack also could be fitted with a micro-camera, to create a highly mobile probe that could go where people can't-into the rubble to search for earthquake victims, for example; or under a door to spy on a competitor's marketing meeting.

Those who read about this technological "advance" at the time probably wondered how long it would take before something similar was attempted with people. Not long at all, as it turns out. The first remote-control experiments with humans are here.

There is nothing quite so ghastly as surgical implants going on. Not yet, anyway. But then, the technology is still in its infancy, and besides, the whole idea of implantations (of such things as ID chips, for example) is still met with revulsion among much of the public.

Nevertheless, Nippon Telegraph & Telephone (NTT), one of Japan's largest corporations, is forging ahead. At the 2005 SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference in Los Angeles this past August, NTT researchers debuted an innovation known as a galvanic vestibular stimulation device (GVS), part of a project they call "Shaking the World."

The GVS has two components: a headset that looks like a pair of stereo earphones, and a wireless handset that resembles a souped-up Playstation controller. After the subject puts on the headphones, a weak electrical current can be delivered to the mastoid bones just behind the ears, thereby interfering with the body's sense of balance. If the current is sufficiently strong, the body will be tricked into thinking it is falling, and will veer in the direction that restores equilibrium.

Start the subject walking and, if you have the controller in hand, you can move him or her left or right, and there will be nothing the subject can do about it. It may be rudimentary, but it is unquestionably a human remote control.

Conference attendees in L.A. lined up to try the thing out. Describing her experience, AP business writer Yuri Kageyama wrote, "The phenomenon is painless but dramatic. Your feet start to move before you know it. I could even remote-control myself by taking the switch into my own hands. [...] It's a mesmerizing sensation similar to being drunk or melting into sleep under the influence of anesthesia. But it's more definitive, as though an invisible hand were reaching inside your brain."

NTT would like to take their invention commercial. One obvious application would be in gaming, and researchers have put together a crude virtual racing game that incorporates the technology to heighten the perception of centrifugal force as the user maneuvers a car around the electronic track.

The company is currently investigating whether or not gamers would be interested in the device, says Manabu Sakurai, NTT's marketing manager, and he adds that flight simulation is another possibility. "Because GVS causes you to feel the same kinds of motion as a large-scale flight simulator," he says, "it could be a much simpler and more cost-effective way to train people."

NTT can also program the controller so that it is timed to music, creating what senior research scientist Taro Maeda calls a "virtual dance experience," adding "I'm really hopeful Apple Computer will be interested in this technology to offer it in their iPod."

Other, more productive potential ends to which the technology might eventually be put include helping the elderly prevent falls, and assisting those with an already impaired sense of balance.

Military applications? Maybe. Of course, no enemy is going to cooperate by donning a headset, but what if a remotely directed, fine-tuned electromagnetic pulse could be aimed at a target's ears and cause the same reaction? That could be very useful in a situation where you wanted to capture rather than kill your adversary, and Invocon, Inc., a small defense contractor, is exploring just such a possibility.

If all of this seems to you just a tad sinister, well, you're not alone. Kageyama summed up her experience by writing that, "If you're determined to fight the suggestive orders from the electric currents by clinging to a fence or just lying on your back, you simply won't move. But from my experience, if the currents persist, you'd probably be persuaded to follow their orders. And I didn't like that sensation. At all."

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Posted 06-26-2007 12:34 PM by DougHornig
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