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Have Your Tin Foil Hat Ready?

According to this article from New Scientist magazine, "Sony patent takes first step towards real-life Matrix" by Jenny Hogan and Barry Fox (April 7), Sony has taken out a patent for a device that would transmit sensory data directly into the human brain. To quote from the article, "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."

They say the details are sparse, so I wouldn't go thinking we're all about to jump into the Matrix just yet. But if they've really made some sort of breakthrough in this technology, we're talking about a major step in the development of certain forms of virtual reality as imagined by science fiction writers for many years now.


The real question: is this the result of research leading to a prototype, or research leading to a bright idea? After all, there are a lot of whacky patents out there.
All I know is what I saw in the article.

The prospect I find frightening is the idea that someone could aim a beam at you and cause hallucinations. That's why I want my tin foil hat at the ready.
Ultrasound? I'd want an insulating foam hat.

There are two hard problems here: determining what exactly in the brain needs to be stimulated to produce a particular effect, and then targetting that location in your head -- if you think something's strange in your environment, stop sitting still. Sony can bypass the second part with headgear, especially if it's a prosthetic device and not just entertainment, but that's the easier of the two.

I'm not saying this won't be an issue many years down the road, where it's your job to look. I would worry much sooner about sound waves being focused at the somewhat less precise target of your ear -- it's only one sense, not all of them, but even if they don't get you to walk into traffic auditory hallucinations are a doozy.
This sort of stimulation isn't entirely new. Brain research at Laurentian University in Ontario, years ago now, demonstrated that sensations including paralysis, the presence of others in a room, fear and paranoia, and visions of people and things can all be produced by stimulating parts of the brain via magnetic waves without the use of invasive techniques. Hallucinations have been reported by folks who live near electric transformers. Sounds to me like Sony just finally got around to adapting this technology for potential commercial purposes.

December 2016

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