June 26, 2008

Researchers Developing Brainwave Binoculars

Soldiers may have a new tool in the very near future: brainwave-aided binoculars.

The Pentagon has awarded contracts to two defense firms to begin developing binoculars that obtain information from the brains of the soldiers using them. The high-power binoculars will be built around the idea that the brain can sense what is visible before it can filter the multitude of visual information it collects.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also known as DARPA, hopes that intelligent binoculars will allow soldiers to spot movement, and threats from further distances than with normal binoculars.

The user's brain activity will be recorded through electrodes inside the helmet. Information about how the user sees high-resolution images will then be processed.  The binoculars will use the responses to train itself to recognize threats.

Yuval Boger, CEO of Sensics, Inc., a Baltimore-based maker of panoramic head-mounted displays, said, "You need to present the soldier with many images and then use the person's brain to figure out what is of interest."

Sensics belongs to a group of researchers that includes Northrop Grumman, SAIC of San Diego, Theia Technologies LLC, L-3 Communications Infrared Products, and Northrop's Linthicum-based Electronic Systems.  A number of universities including the Georgia Institute of Technology, Portland State University, the University of Colorado, and Georgetown University are also involved in the research.

Associate Professor Paul Hasler of Georgia Tech said the technology used "neuromorphic" engineering, which uses software and hardware to imitate human intelligence.

"You would see a certain picture in your field of view, but the device would actually be looking over a much wider space - and if it found something interesting it would present you with that picture as well," Hasler said.

HRL Laboratories was also awarded a contract worth $4.3 million according to DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker.

Assistant professor of neurology and ophthalmology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Dr. Robert Shin, said the brain is constantly processing images but the majority gets filtered out.

"There is a level where the brain can identify things before it ever makes it to the conscious level. Your brain says, 'It may be something.'  But it might not realize that it is something that should rise to the conscious level," added Dr. Shin.