In yet another story proving that science fiction often becomes science reality, neuroscientists from the University of Washington have developed what they believe to be a first step in achieving the type of hyper-realistic virtual sensory experiences seen in films such as The Matrix series, Vanilla Sky, or the awesomely unwatchable Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over. The researchers are hailing their technology as the world’s first computer-to-brain sensory interface and a crucial first step in furthering the perceived verisimilitude of virtual reality experiences.

Researchers tasked study participants with completing a simple virtual maze which participants were not shown. Instead, researchers caused participants to perceive spots of light called phosphenes using a technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation.

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Phosphenes are the bursts of light your brain perceives when you rub your eyes.

This technique involves delivering electromagnetic pulses directly to the visual cortex using small electrodes placed a few millimeters away from a subject’s head. When an obstacle in the maze appeared in front of participants’ in-game avatars, their sensory cortex would perceive a phosphene, almost as if they were “seeing” the wall in front of their avatar. Test participants were able to make the right choices in the maze 92% of the time.

The high rate of success with which participants navigated the maze indicate that this technology has boundless potential, once a few technical hurdles are crossed.

According to the researchers’ published data, the success of their experiment represents the crossing of a crucial boundary in many areas of neuroscience and computer research:

These results suggest that humans can learn to utilize information delivered non-invasively to their brains to solve tasks that cannot be solved using their natural senses. Exploring this emerging field of human sensory augmentation, with its technological as well as ethical and social implications, remains an active area of research.

Ethical and social implications indeed. According to lead researcher Darby Losey, this technology is breaking new ground in the field of brain-computer interfaces. While most research involves detecting and making sense of brainwaves, this technique works in reverse by sending sensory information directly into the brain:

We’re essentially trying to give humans a sixth sense. So much effort in this field of neural engineering has focused on decoding information from the brain. We’re interested in how you can encode information into the brain.

Co-authors and UW researchers Rajesh Rao and Andrea Stocco previously established a brain-to-brain connection similar to the Vulcan mind meld of so many Star Trek storylines. In that study, one user was able to cause another to involuntarily move his finger in response to the first user’s thoughts.

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Transcranial magnetic stimulation has even been used as a treatment for chronic depression.

With each new terrifying neuroscience development, the future keeps looking more and more like either dystopian or utopian science fiction. The difficulty lies in deciding which one it looks like more.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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