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Through computer, brain can direct a robot

July 12, 2010

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Prototypes
If you ever suspected that the mind-control wizardry behind a toy like the Force Trainer was a bit of a gimmick, I can think of a few Northeastern University eggheads who might agree with you.

The Force Trainer merely pushes a ball up a tube when it detects your brain’s beta-wave emissions — signaling that you are concentrating on something, which might be the ball, but which could be anything else.

Researchers at Northeastern’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering have devised something a bit more sophisticated than the Star Wars game.

Wearing what looks like a swim cap wired with electrodes, you can “command’’ a robot to move left, right, and forward by looking at corresponding areas on a computer screen, the Northeastern researchers say.

The system — it detects brain signals from the user’s visual cortex — is rigged to boss around a small robot with a laptop on its back.

Here’s how it works:

Each quadrant on the user’s computer screen represents a different command and flashes at a different frequency.

Staring at a particular quadrant causes the user’s visual cortex to emit a corresponding frequency, which a computer translates into a directional command.

The system then wirelessly transmits those commands to the laptop on the back of the robot. (The user can track the robot’s whereabouts by using a Skype video connection with the laptop.)

A Northeastern engineering professor, Deniz Erdogmus, said the new brain-computer interface might be used to control household appliances. And in the upcoming academic year, Northeastern students will outfit a wheelchair to take orders from a brain-computer interface.

Mobile payments

From smartphone to credit card machine

My front porch is becoming my most frequently used point of sale for food, clothing, books, and gadgets.

And that makes it a great place to see the latest advances in mobile payments.

At the forefront, of course, are the UPS, FedEx, and USPS folks, who use neat hand-held PCs to process pickups and record my signature.

The small businesses I deal with in Milton are a bit behind the curve. For example, until recently, if I wanted to pay for my Yu Hsiang broccoli with a credit card, the delivery guy would have to go back to his car to retrieve a manual imprinter and a ballpoint pen.

But it is getting easier and cheaper for small businesses to process purchases in the field.

If you are an AT&T customer, rather than purchasing new wireless terminals and hardware, you can now use your smartphone to process credit and debit card purchases.

The costs of the browser-based service, called AprivaPay, start at $15 per month.

The more advanced version of AprivaPay, called AprivaPay Professional (about $20 per month), uses downloadable software to store transactions in the phone, even if you make them while outside your wireless service area.

(AprivaPay Professional is available on Windows Mobile Standard and Professional devices, according to AT&T.)

With AprivaPay Professional, you can also use a small Bluetooth card terminal and printer to record purchases.

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