Introducing Gerwin Schalk - Volition, Not Science Fiction

bridges vol. 15, September 2007 / News from the Network: Austrian Researchers Abroad

by Juliet M. Beverly

{enclose vol15_schalk.mp3}

schalk_on_city_balcony_small.jpgSome people believe they are telekinetic - having the power to move objects with thought. This conclusion is usually reached after the excitement of watching too many "X-Files" episodes or similar sci-fi series. But sooner or later, those little sci-fi dreams of humans burst when they encounter reality - and the abilities of normal humans. However, this kind of science fiction gets closer to fact with the Brain-Computer Interface technology of Dr. Gerwin Schalk, a research scientist at the Wadsworth Center in Albany, New York.

The Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) is a technological innovation that allows direct communication from the brain to a device. It works through the electrical impulses that underlie the power of thought and concentration. Once a person is connected to the device - via wearing a hat similar to a swimming cap spiked with electrodes - the electrodes pick up the signals generated during brain activity.

The BCI is able to read the signals, and to translate them into commands in order to perform an external activity at a computer, for example, typing a word or moving a cursor. But using the BCI isn't as simple as just putting on your thinking cap. It can take weeks or even months to train the brain to give off the right signals for commands.

BCI development is not a trivial pursuit. Schalk's research provides the communication platform for people who have lost the physical ability to communicate on their own, for example, people who are paralyzed and suffer severe motor disabilities such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also referred to as Lou Gehrig's Disease. This is the primary target group for Schalk's research at the Wadsworth Center, where Schalk is the chief promoter and project director of "BCI2000."

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}

BCI2000 is the first general-purpose software tool for BCI research that can be downloaded and used free for the purposes of non-profit research and education, a concept initiated by Schalk.


Currently used in more than 155 laboratories around the world, BCI2000 is funded through Schalk's grant of $1.4 million from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIH; NIBIB). "[BCI2000] is the only one of its kind. Of course other software tools exist, but BCI2000 is the only one with a general functionality," says Schalk. "Its success has been in part because we have designed it to be general purpose and [it] would be able to accommodate other types and variation of BCI research, which works well for small labs that are just getting started."

The general-purpose BCI that Schalk's software provides has proven to be very successful: It has been implemented in many labs, such as at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, University of California, San Diego, Washington University in St. Louis, Georgia State University, and Fondazione Santa Lucia, to name a few.

Slightly over a year ago, Schalk's software got its first real-life application: His colleages at the Wadsworth Center provided a man who is completely paralyzed from ALS with a BCI2000-based device. Since then, he has been using this device successfully as his primary everyday communication tool. Originally, the man had used an eye tracker system with a matrix of collected characters. But once his

Typical Brain-Computer Interface setup. The user wears an electrode cap with 64 sensors. These sensors are connected to a computer that detects the user’s intent and thereby allows the user to spell characters.

disease progressed and he had less and less control over his eye movement, the eye tracker system no longer worked reliably. He switched to the BCI2000-based device for all his daily communication and control tasks. "You know," Schalk explains, not without pride, "this is what makes software development so great. It really improves people's lives by supporting those cutting edge implementations."

As for wider commercial use, Schalk says that he is optimistic that BCI will be developed enough to transcend its first target user group of paralyzed patients and find a role in other areas of the service industry, such as in military and medical fields, and finally in the commercial sector, like the gaming industry.

However, within the first user group, BCI is still facing three limiting factors:

Factor number one is system performance. "Right now, someone who is paralyzed can type [using BCI] up to 10 characters per minute. For someone who can't use their hands but can speak, that simply is not fast enough," Schalk explains.

Factor number two is the risk that might be inherent in using certain types of BCI devices. Signals recorded from the scalp are noisy and blurry, which can cause interference with the brain signals that the device reads. Thus, some researchers believe implanting the device on the surface of the brain or, even within the brain, would provide better performance. However, implementation has been tested so far mostly in primates, and, because it is invasive, it involves brain surgery.

The final factor is the price projection. Schalk roughly estimates the current price tag of a BCI cap device to be in the 10-20,000 USD range. Schalk's vision for BCI is for handicapped patients to be able to use BCI easily in their homes and everyday lives, but as he knows best this will need more time. In Brain-Computer Symbiosis, a publication-pending article written by him, he is convinced that the potential draws near. "This article is thus not science fiction," Schalk writes in his opening, but concludes confidently, "Because the present vision depends merely on technological improvements rather than hopeful speculation, and because its realization is subject to the same forces that have governed the course of many previous technical developments, it is, in the end, an inevitable next step in our own evolution."


Schalk, who holds a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from Graz University of Technology, Austria, and another M.S. in information technology and a Ph.D. in computer and systems engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, is currently developing another exciting software - this one called SIGFRIED (SIGnal modeling FoR Identification and Event Detection).

SIGFRIED, whose patent application is currently pending, is a revolutionary method for analyzing brain function signals in real time that results in a signal output that is easy to understand. In the past, analyzing complex systems of the brain involved much data collection prior to post-document analysis of patients with different health conditions, for example analysis of the brain activity of people who suffer from epileptic seizures. With SIGFRIED, however, real time analysis would be possible for the first time.

One would think that Schalk, a nominee for the 2004 Technology Review's "TR100: Top Innovators under 35," would pop in a couple of "Star Wars" DVDs featuring the ultimate telekinetic villain, Darth Vader, to relax on the weekends. However, Schalk's relaxation doesn't take place in the living room in front of a monitor, but in the kitchen, in front of the stove. "That's the only place where I don't think about work ... I make some Thai, Chinese, and some Vietnamese," says Schalk, expounding happily on his greatest stress reliever - cooking.


The article above was based on an interview with Dr. Gerwin Schalk conducted by Juliet M. Beverly on August 21, 2007.


· Wadsworth Center, NYS Department of Health

· Personal Homepage

· BCI2000


· Wickelgren, Ingrid. "Tapping the Mind." Science 299, no. 5606 (2003): 496-499. (17 August 2007).

· Brain-Computer Symbiosis,
Gerwin Schalk
Laboratory of Nervous System Disorders, Wadsworth Center, New York State Dept. of Health, Albany, NY,
Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering Department, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Troy, NY
(Not For Public Release- publication pending)

· Viegas, Jennifer. "Hat Allows Computer Control By Thought." Discovery News 7 December 2004.

· "Albany scientists turn thoughts into words." 9 June 2006.