Friday, June 22, 2007

Move the train with your brain

HATOYAMA, Japan - Forget the clicker: A new technology in Japan could let you control electronic devices without lifting a finger simply by reading brain activity.
The "brain-machine interface" developed by Hitachi Inc. analyzes slight changes in the brain's blood flow and translates brain motion into electric signals.

A cap connects by optical fibers to a mapping device, which links, in turn, to a toy train set via a control computer and motor during one recent demonstration at Hitachi's Advanced Research Laboratory in Hatoyama, just outside Tokyo.

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"Take a deep breath and relax," said Kei Utsugi, a researcher, while demonstrating the device on Wednesday.

At his prompting, a reporter did simple calculations in her head, and the train sprang forward — apparently indicating activity in the brain's frontal cortex, which handles problem solving.

Activating that region of the brain — by doing sums or singing a song — is what makes the train run, according to Utsugi. When one stops the calculations, the train stops, too.

Underlying Hitachi's brain-machine interface is a technology called optical topography, which sends a small amount of infrared light through the brain's surface to map out changes in blood flow.

Although brain-machine interface technology has traditionally focused on medical uses, makers like Hitachi and Japanese automaker Honda Motor Co. have been racing to refine the technology for commercial application.

Hitachi's scientists are set to develop a brain TV remote controller letting users turn a TV on and off or switch channels by only thinking.

Honda, whose interface monitors the brain with an MRI machine like those used in hospitals, is keen to apply the interface to intelligent, next-generation automobiles.

The technology could one day replace remote controls and keyboards and perhaps help disabled people operate electric wheelchairs, beds or artificial limbs.

Initial uses would be helping people with paralyzing diseases communicate even after they have lost all control of their muscles.

Since 2005, Hitachi has sold a device based on optical topography that monitors brain activity in paralyzed patients so they can answer simple questions — for example, by doing mental calculations to indicate "yes" or thinking of nothing in particular to indicate "no."

"We are thinking of various kinds of applications," project leader Hideaki Koizumi said. "Locked-in patients can speak to other people by using this kind of brain machine interface."

A key advantage to Hitachi's technology is that sensors don't have to physically enter the brain. Earlier technologies developed by U.S. companies like Neural Signals Inc. required implanting a chip under the skull.

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Still, major stumbling blocks remain.

Size is one issue, though Hitachi has developed a prototype compact headband and mapping machine that together weigh only about two pounds.

Another would be to tweak the interface to more accurately pick up on the correct signals while ignoring background brain activity.

Any brain-machine interface device for widespread use would be "a little further down the road," Koizumi said.

He added, however, that the technology is entertaining in itself and could easily be applied to toys.

"It's really fun to move a model train just by thinking," he said.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Sony's U.S. video-game unit cuts jobs

TOKYO - Sony's U.S. video-game unit is cutting jobs to become more competitive, the company said Thursday, as the PlayStation 3 machine struggles against rival offerings from Microsoft and Nintendo.

Numbers and other details aren't being disclosed about the employee reductions at Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. in the U.S., which began Wednesday, said spokeswoman Sayoka Henmi in Tokyo.

The job cuts in the U.S. follow those in Europe in April, but no cuts are planned for Japan, she said.

"The goal is to reform the organization," she said.

Sony Corp (NYSE:SNE - news). officials have said that changes are in order to adjust to the needs of the industry, as people increasingly use their machines for linking to the Internet, watching video, listening to music or looking at photos, not just playing games.

The PlayStation 3, which competes against Microsoft Corp.'s
Xbox 360 and Nintendo Co.'s Wii, went on sale in November in Japan and the U.S., and in March in Europe.

Tokyo-based Sony shipped 5.5 million PS3 machines in the fiscal year through March 31, fewer than the 6 million the company had targeted.

Nintendo, the Kyoto-based maker of Super Mario and Pokemon games and Game Boy Advance machines, shipped 5.84 million Wii consoles worldwide during the same period. The Wii, which went on sale late last year worldwide, has done very well, winning over the elderly and other newcomers to games with a wandlike remote-control that can be used for fishing, tennis and other easy-to-play games.

Sony isn't expecting to post a profit in its game business until the fiscal year ending March 2009.

U.S. software company Microsoft is expecting to have sold 12 million Xbox 360 consoles by June. The machine went on sale in 2005.

In recent years, Sony has been restructuring and playing catch-up to improve profit in its core electronics division. But the hefty startup costs for the PS3 are weighing heavily on its revival efforts.