IMAGINE movies and computer games in which you get to smell, taste and perhaps even feel things. That's the tantalising prospect raised by a patent on a device for transmitting sensory data directly into the human brain - granted to none other than the entertainment giant Sony.
Sony patent takes first step towards real-life Matrix
The technique suggested in the patent is entirely non-invasive. It describes a device that fires pulses of ultrasound at the head to modify firing patterns in targeted parts of the brain, creating "sensory experiences" ranging from moving images to tastes and sounds. This could give blind or deaf people the chance to see or hear, the patent claims.
While brain implants are becoming increasingly sophisticated, the only non-invasive ways of manipulating the brain remain crude. A technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation can activate nerves by using rapidly changing magnetic fields to induce currents in brain tissue. However, magnetic fields cannot be finely focused on small groups of brain cells, whereas ultrasound could be.
If the method described by Sony really does work, it could have all sorts of uses in research and medicine, even if it is not capable of evoking sensory experiences detailed enough for the entertainment purposes envisaged in the patent.
“This was a prophetic invention. It was based on an inspiration that this may someday be the direction technology takes us”
Details are sparse, and Sony declined New Scientist's request for an interview with the inventor, who is based in its offices in San Diego, California. However, independent experts are not dismissing the idea out of hand. "I looked at it and found it plausible," says Niels Birbaumer, a pioneering neuroscientist at the University of Tübingen in Germany who has created devices that let people control devices via brain waves.
The application contains references to two scientific papers presenting research that could underpin the device. One, in an echo of Galvani's classic 18th-century experiments on frogs' legs that proved electricity can trigger nerve impulses, showed that certain kinds of ultrasound pulses can affect the excitability of nerves from a frog's leg. The author, Richard Mihran of the University of Colorado, Boulder, had no knowledge of the patent until New Scientist contacted him, but says he would be concerned about the proposed method's long-term safety.
Sony first submitted a patent application for the ultrasound method in 2000, which was granted in March 2003. Since then Sony has filed a series of continuations, most recently in December 2004 (US 2004/267118).
Elizabeth Boukis, spokeswoman for Sony Electronics, says the work is speculative. "There were not any experiments done," she says. "This particular patent was a prophetic invention. It was based on an inspiration that this may someday be the direction that technology will take us."
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