Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Second Life For The Disabled, Indeed

TOKYO (Reuters) - People with severe paralysis could find new opportunities from shopping to doing business or making new friends in the virtual world of Second Life by just thinking about it, if experiments being conducted by a Japanese university bear fruit.

In a recent demonstration, Junichi Ushiba, an associate professor at Keio University and head of the project, showed how electrodes attached to the scalp can pick up the electrical changes associated with brain activity.

The data can be interpreted by a computer, allowing a user to manipulate his or her on-line persona, or avatar, around the streets of Second Life without using a keyboard or mouse.

"When people are paralyzed, of course their lives become restricted," said Ushiba, as a graduate student took a virtual stroll through the historic streets of Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, without moving a muscle.

"But with this technology we can interpret their intention to move, allowing them to go shopping in Second Life or even set up a business."

San Francisco-based Linden Lab says about half a million people regularly visit Second Life, where commercial transactions can be carried out in Linden dollars, convertible to U.S. dollars.

Ushiba, who spends part of his time working at a medical rehabilitation centre, hopes to have people with paralysis try the system next year.

The project is still in its early days, and the students experimenting with the system must practice for a while and find the best spots on their scalps for the electrodes before they can stroll smoothly around.

"The important thing is to concentrate. You can't really think about anything else," said 23-year-old Yasunari Hashimoto after demonstrating the system.

Loss of focus can result in an inadvertent dive off a virtual cliff or into the sea.

Brain control of computers is already the subject of experiments in other countries, including the U.S. BrainGate system which enables users with an implant to open e-mail and move objects such as wheelchairs.

"We have a lot of members who can no longer move at all," said Yoshiko Umeda, a volunteer nurse with an organization representing some of Japan's 7,500 sufferers from motor neurone disease, a progressive disorder that causes paralysis.

"I think they would very much welcome a system operated by the brain."

Ushiba hopes the random element of Second Life will change the lives of patients immobilized by illness or injury, in a way that clicking buttons to send e-mails cannot.

"In ordinary life you go shopping and you might just happen to see a jacket you like and buy it," he said. "Or the cover of a book might catch your eye. Sometimes you chat with people you just happen to run into," he said. "This kind of chance encounter could enrich people's lives."

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