A virtual body for the paralyzed

In the last month I’ve written articles about two seemingly disparate topics: Online multiplayer games, and “brain-computer interfaces”, devices that allow paralyzed patients to control computers. That got me thinking: Wouldn’t it be cool to merge the two? Why not take one of the brain-computer interfaces and hook it up to a 3D online world, so that a paralyzed person can walk around in the game?

As the old joke goes, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog — and that’s even more true in online games, where you mostly care about someone’s avatar, not their actual identity. While recently playing World of Warcraft, I spent an evening killing thieves, tarantulas and monsters with a powerful magician, only to discover at the end of the evening that the player was a 13-year-old girl in Ohio. (She was even more freaked out to discover she’d been playing alongside a 36-year-old journalist.) But the point is, once you’re inside the game, everyone’s equal. If a paralyzed person could successfully control an avatar, their online “body” would be precisely as fully-abled as that of any other player.

So I opened up the latest Wired and discovered that, yep, some brain-computer interface people have indeed been wiring quadriplegic patients up so they can successfully play video games and use remote controls. Richard Martin writes about the case of Matt Nagle, a 25-year-old who’s been paralyzed from the neck down, but who can kick your ass at Pong:

Nagle turned the TV on and off and switched channels (trapped in his hospital room, he’s become a daytime-TV addict). Then he opened and read the messages in his dummy email program. “Now I’m at the point where I can bring the cursor just about anywhere,” he said. “I can make it hover off to the side, not doing anything. When I first realized I could control it I said, ‘Holy shit! I like this.’”

What are you thinking about when you move the cursor? I asked.

“For a while I was thinking about moving the mouse with my hand,” Nagle replied. “Now, I just imagine moving the cursor from place to place.” In other words, Nagle’s brain has assimilated the system. The cursor is as much a part of his self as his arms and legs were.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Search This Site


I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

More of Me


Recent Comments

Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson