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Remote Control

remotehuman.jpgThis isn't "worldchanging" in terms of it being something that we should work to achieve; this is "worldchanging" in that it's a kind of technology that could have some seriously negative consequences if abused, so we should be paying closer attention to it now, while it's still early in its development. Moreover, we could even start brainstorming uses that could have real human benefit.

I'm talking, of course, about Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation.

The term may not ring a bell, so how about this: remote control of someone else's navigation while walking.

It's long been known that certain kind of electrical stimulation can trigger changes to body perceptions of its location and where various limbs are (and aren't) -- a kind of awareness known scientifically as "proprioception." The body area so stimulated is the "vestibular" system, which controls balance. Electric stimulations of the vestibular system are used in research on how the body perceives itself (PDF), and as a way to control balance disorders. But it turns out that Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation (GVS) can do much more. Researchers at Japan's Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) have found that it's possible to use GVS to the mastoid region (just behind and below the ear) in order to "steer" a walking person. Moreover, they are already planning on commercializing this technology.

NTT's version of GVS was unveiled at the recent SIGGRAPH conference. The fact sheet for the demo gives a few details:

There is no feeling of enforced action. Because users are navigated very naturally and almost unconsciously, they are not distracted by the stimulation and are aware that their behavior was an effect of the stimulation only afterward.The device provides a virtual sense of acceleration without an expensive mechanical platform synchronized to the flow of movies.When the stimulation is synchronized to musical rhythms, the device provides a very amazing experience. Especially when stimulation is at a high frequency (more than 1~2 Hz), users feel as if their visual fields and bodies are tremblingly along with the rhythm.

New Scientist adds more information about the research, and provides a link to a surreal video (MPEG) of a young woman being steered around by an older man using what looks like an off-the-shelf RC vehicle controller.

NTT isn't just looking at GVS as a way to stimulate interesting musical experiences or for more realistic virtual reality games. They claim that it would have more practical applications:

One implication of this technology is its possible role in maintaining safety standards for electrical stimulation. Popularization of ubiquitous technology is another, because it would be useful for crowd control to have people walk in the same direction and sway to avoid collisions.

From a benevolent standpoint, it's the walking equivalent of the Intelligent Vehicle-Highway System (IVHS); let's call it the Intelligent Pedestrian Sidewalk System (IPSS), built to keep people from running into each other. The less-benevolent uses aren't hard to imagine, however.

This technology will likely follow a predictable pattern, similar to that taken by virtual reality: curiosity from the edges; hype about the possible uses; clumsy and not-terribly-useful hardware tried by the masses; subsequent abandonment by the masses; (a decade or so later) real applications finally emerging. As the technology stands now, we're still in the first stage: GVS requires bulky (and undoubtedly oh-so-comfortable) headgear and battery pack, and the effects appear to be more amusing to watch than to experience.

But improvements are all-too-likely. In principle, such stimulation could even be achieved without headgear, although how precisely that would be accomplished remains (ahem) an engineering question. So the question for you folks: what sorts of positive, beneficial uses can you imagine for something like this? And would you want to try it?

(Thanks for the disturbing tip, Mike Treder)

Comments (7)

Call me perverse but I can't think of the "obvious abuses."

Simulated rides in theme parks with bad settings that make people throw up? Kids out of synchrony in mosh pits? Doing cruel, yet funny, things to your pets?

The only thing I can think of is cracking the radio signal that controls the headset and then sending malicious signals that run counter to the intended effects. This could be made slightly more difficult by using shield cables.

If someone has to voluntarily put one of these headsets on, it's hard to think how it could be that dangerous. People would be fools to put these things on while driving cars or planes.

I guess I could stand some enlightenment, what are these obvious abuses, aside from bad motion sickness?

Calling Dr. Skinner... will Dr. B.F. Skinner please report to the control tower...


>>what are these obvious abuses, aside from bad motion sickness?

If the technology can be improved to the point where no headset is needed, we'd never have to worry about another pesky protest, as protestors could be dispersed against their will.

Assassination becomes a simple game--just make your target walk in front of a bus.

Those are just a couple off the top of my head.


I think it just effects your perception of balance and acceleration. You can't get protestors to walk away, but you could make them fall down and feel off balance--and then the cops would just have to drag them away.

Altering your sense of balance appears to be what the video is all about. The girl is walking, but the man with the controller is making her feel a little off-balance in one direction or the other, so she steps that way to compensate.

And just think about how queasy this device could make you if you suddenly felt like you were falling.

On the other hand, maybe smaller and more advanced versions of it could help with seasickness? Or motion sickness? Zero-g sickness?

And wireless versions of it could be used as nonlethal weapons--which is both good and bad.

Yes, I think I agree with Bolo's assessment. You can't make someone get up, walk around or start dancing with this thing. It seems like all you do is affect someone perception of motion, positional sense and sense of acceleration. You can make a person already standing fall down though, you can make a personal already running stumble and fall. You can make Fred Astaire look like a terrible dancer but, in each case the person has to voluntarily be in motion or in some kind of activity.

If a person is sitting, they'll get seasick and perhaps flop over to vomit but you can't make them get up and hurl themselves out a window.

The threat of wirelessly beaming these sensations to people, protesters for example. I feel skeptical of. How do you induce such a percisely aimed and carefully regulated electrical current in the vestibular area at a large distance? I don't think that's easy to do at all. These things will be restricted to helmets and headsets for a long time.

Now I do agree that these things could be used as trauma-less torture devices. You could have a captured prisoner who is tied down with one of these headsets on and give him terrible motion sickness for hours on end. That is definitely an abuse I can see. But wirelessly stopping protestors or dispersing crowds is hard for me to see.

I'd love to try it, especially with dance & music. It could synchonize ballet companys & busby-berkeley type performances.

Can it be used to show a person how to most efficiently balance & move rhythmically in Gravity? If so it could be used to overcome years of personal nervous system habits & restrictions, reduce stress & improve balance & minimize the impact of aging.


I am wondering if a positive use would be for Parkinson's patients who have lost their sense of balance?


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