Medical researchers from the Universities of Göttingen, Heidelberg and Karlsruhe have developed a human-machine interface that allows users to steer a wheelchair by wiggling their ears. A small chip behind the ear detects muscle signals and transmits them wirelessly to a computer.
The aim of the project is to improve the quality of life for paraplegics. "With the new technology, we are first and foremost thinking of patients with high spinal cord injury, such as patients who can not move their legs and arms. In contrast to existing controls, which are steered through respiration or eye movement, the patients would not need to deny themselves of simultaneous social interaction, " said David Liebetanz, the project leader.
Ten healthy volunteers tried one hour a day for five days to move their ears, alternating the left and the right side. They were supported by a software program that was specifically developed for the purpose. On the fifth day, the training software was connected to the controller of an electric wheelchair. The data was transmitted from ear to the controller through a radio interface.
In the field test, every one of the ten participants was able to control a wheelchair using only the ear muscles. "That has really surprised us. Half of our subjects had indicated before the start of the study, not to be able to wiggle their ears, " said Liebetanz. In the coming years, the research group would like to use its experience and develop a fully implantable system. Such a man-machine interface can then be used to wirelessly control different devices, such as a wheelchair, a prosthetic arm or a computer.
-- By Thomas Klein, Associate Editor, EMDT