As I stepped into the elevator, Jordan Nguyen told me about the accident that temporarily paralysed him.
“It was horrible. I thought I’d never walk again,” he recalled.
Nguyen – then an electrical engineering undergraduate at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) – was at a pool party, playing and jumping off a diving board all afternoon with friends. And then, in one sickening moment, the board came loose and dropped onto his head, twisting his neck to one side.
There was a lot of pain. But what was much worse was the 24 hours of helplessness that followed, during which he was unable to move from his bed.
Luckily, he recovered. But in the experience he found his calling, he says. And he has spent the last seven years developing a wheelchair for people with severe motor disabilities, such as quadriplegia or locked-in syndrome.
I recently visited the engineering faculty at UTS, where 27-year-old Nguyen is now a PhD student, to test-drive ‘TIM’ – the Thought-controlled Intelligent Machine. It looks like an ordinary wheelchair, except it has a panoramic camera attached and a screen display.
Although TIM can also be controlled with a handheld tilt-sensitive device, my joyride required the more humbling method of attaching electrodes to my skull with a cold gel and then held in place with a slightly gaudy, pink headband. I felt like I was in an 80s version of Mythbusters.
I had five electrodes attached to my head above the area between my occipital and parietal lobes – where vision is processed and integrated in the brain.
A little marker cantered across the screen until I blinked – once, to stop it, and a second time to confirm the direction – and the chair started moving. By blinking, the signals in my vision-processing brain areas would change, and the wheelchair could respond to these changes.
Before I began, Nguyen calibrated the machine so it could tell the difference between me blinking normally and giving a command. Even so, I did occasionally set the wheelchair off on a course accidentally – particularly if I started laughing.
TIM is an ‘intelligent’ machine, though, so it uses information from the cameras to detect obstacles and adjust the route automatically. This means that even though it sometimes took five to fifteen seconds for me to change the direction, the wheelchair wouldn’t go flying into a wall – or worse a person – in the crowded UTS lobby.
We successfully dodged people and navigated an impromptu obstacle course, although I wasn’t quite able to get up to the speed or handling I’d hoped for. (It might be a few more years before TIM can do wheelies!)
And, the experience of pretending to be immobile was, in itself, a challenge: after almost an hour, I became fidgety I found myself longing to play basketball. And that’s when I realised of how significant an invention like this will be for people like my grandmother, who is too weak to leave her bed on her own.
We all know people like my grandmother. In Australia alone, about one in five – four million people – report that they have a disability, according to a 2009 report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. And for more than a million, that disability is profound or severe enough that they need help with communication, mobility or self-care tasks.
Nguyen’s thought-controlled wheelchair has the potential to change a lot of lives; not only for the severely disabled, but also for the 2.6 million loved ones and carers who provide assistance daily.
It’s also, frankly, a cool new toy. Controlling objects with your brain waves could surely lead to new games, brain-controlled cars or, perhaps more sinisterly, the military.
It might sound like the stuff of comic books or sci-fi novels, but for Nguyen it’s still fundamentally about the people.
“When I first started meeting wheelchair bound people I found it a very confronting thing,” he said. “You think you’re going to go and make things for people you don’t know, and it’s a whole different thing when you go and meet them.”
“The first few I met I didn’t know what to do. I’d sit there and I’d keep my emotions together while I was there. I’d listen to their individual stories and I’d go off and cry.”
I was able to get a sneak peek into a future where there will be unprecedented freedom and autonomy for people presently unable to move on their own. I only hope it’s not too far off.
Watch Prosser Scully as she takes TIM for a test-drive in the foyer of the University of Technology, Sydney: