Imagine a Wii that lets you play a musical instrument with your brain without touching strings or a keyboard. That's exactly what this "proof of concept" brain-computer-music-interface (BCMI) is designed to do – it uses brain waves and eye movement to sound musical notes, so even a person with "locked-in-syndrome" could participate in creative activity analogous to learning to play a musical instrument. Developed by a team headed by Eduardo Miranda, a composer and computer music specialist from the UK's University of Plymouth, the BCMI can be set up on a laptop computer for under $3,500 (including the computer). For people who are disabled, assistive technology usually aims at day-to-day functioning and largely ignores the unique aspect of being a human – creativity. This is different.

The Brain Computer Interface as an assistive technology

"Creativity - like human life itself - begins in darkness." – Julia Cameron

No-one wants to even think about it but imagine a car crash or a stroke left you totally paralyzed and your only active movements were eye movements, facial gestures and minimal head movements. If you still retain full cognitive capacity, you would have what is called locked-in syndrome, a fate some might regard worse than death. For any person with a disability, one of the biggest obstacles is that people simply assume that if your body doesn't work, then your brain is probably not capable of much either. How much worse is this for the person isolated by locked-in syndrome?

Historically, assistive technologies have relied on the person being able to maneuver at least one part of their body. For example, an Augmented Communication Device may require them to press buttons on a keyboard that has pre-designated questions, statements or responses. These devices can be adapted in order for the buttons to be pressed with a finger, a toe, or a metal-pointer attached to their head. Pretty impressive. But what about people with locked-in syndrome who aren't capable of such motor function other than eye movements? Most of the technology has been simply passing them by.

Technology in the form of the brain computer interface (BCI) provides hope for these and many other people because we no longer have to imagine being able to use our thoughts to control a wheelchair or a communication device. In the past decade this technology has moved increasingly from fantasy into a reality.

In 2007, Mike Hanlon wrote in Gizmag about "The first commercially available Brain Computer Interface" and pointed out how work in the area was focused on enabling paralyzed humans to communicate far more freely, but noted the potential to enhance everyone was not that far away. He was right. Within the last five years we have moved from the ability to point with the mind to a thought controlled cursor. And we have moved from driving wheelchairs with brainwaves to driving a car controlled by mind power.

The brain-computer-music-interface

This latest development has thrust the BCI into the world of music and creativity where, in this, its first use, the brain computer musical interface promises to enhance life immensely for those with a most severe disability, locked-in syndrome.

This is the brainchild of a team headed up by Eduardo Miranda, and the Plymouth BCMI Project [PDF]. The system is not yet wireless, but uses a laptop computer, related software, 3 electrodes and an EEG amplifier and can be built for under US$3,500.

Using brainwaves a person can almost immediately produce a full range of musical notes from this device by simply looking intently at one of four icons. These four icons are responsible for sounding pitch, rhythm, and controlling the strength and speed of the notes. Like learning to play a musical instrument, playing music with this device requires skill and learning. As the scientists note, however, this can be an attractive attribute.

With minimal practice in this proof of concept test, the person with locked-in syndrome rapidly demonstrated skill at playing and found it an enjoyable experience.

Check out what such a device can do when output from it is hooked into a piano keyboard. A practiced person has the potential to play masterful music using nothing but his or her brainwaves.

A whole new medium for creativity

Assistive technologies have made life easier for millions of people with disabilities around the globe. We have technology that can help people at home and at work; help them to communicate; help them with mobility. In fact you could say we've got technology for almost everything important to a person's life, right? But until now, these technologies largely ignored the most unique aspect of being a human – creativity.

In the grand scheme of life, you probably wouldn't say that cooking dinner for yourself or getting yourself out of bed in the morning were the things you were most proud of achieving. People want to be unique, innovative, and admired for their talents. Why else would we write books, design cars, or start our own companies? It's in our nature to create. The BCMI promises to give a whole new medium for creativity because it can be used by anyone almost regardless of any physical disability. Inside each one of us is the untapped potential to be the next Beethoven without the agony of studying music theory or learning the piano. All you need is a brain.