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Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation

Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation

I have a new favorite thing. It's a technology called Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation  — essentially, it's electricity messing with the delicate nerves inside the ear that help maintain our balance. One awesome application - using it as a remote control for people. Today, this is done by wearing a headset with a very low voltage electric current applied near the back of the ears which moves through the head — either from left to right or right to left, depending on which way a joystick on a remote-control is moved. Although I have not experienced this myself, it has been described like feeling a mysterious, irresistible urge to start walking to the right whenever the operator turned the switch to the right. Leaving the subject feeling convinced —mistakenly — that this is the only way to maintain balance.

Check out this video from 2005 taken at the Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp.'s (NTT), "Parasitic Humanoid Project" of "Radio Controlled Walking" in action:

The phenomenon is painless but dramatic. Subjects feet start to move before they know it. You could even remote-control yourself by taking the switch into your own hands. There's no proven-beyond-a-doubt explanation yet as to why people start veering when electricity hits their ear. But researchers say they were able to make a person walk along a route in the shape of a giant pretzel using this technique. Pretty cool.

The experience itself has been described as a "mesmerizing sensation similar to being drunk or melting into sleep under the influence of anesthesia. But it's more definitive, as though an invisible hand were reaching inside your brain." Researchers see the feature being used in video games and amusement park rides, although there are no plans so far for a commercial product.

Research on using electricity to affect human balance has been going on around the world for some time. James Collins, professor of biomedical engineering at  Boston University, has studied using the technology to prevent the elderly from falling and to help people with an impaired sense of balance. But he also believes the effect is suited for games and other entertainment. "I suspect they'll probably get a kick out of the illusions that can be created to give them a more total immersion experience as part of virtual reality," Collins said.

Timothy Hullar, assistant professor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo., believes finding the right way to deliver an electromagnetic field to the ear at a distance could turn the technology into a weapon for situations where "killing isn't the best solution."

"This would be the most logical situation for a nonlethal weapon that presumably would make your opponent dizzy," he said. "If you find just the right frequency, energy, duration of application, you would hope to find something that doesn't permanently injure someone but would allow you to make someone temporarily off-balance. "Indeed, a small defense contractor in Texas, Invocon Inc., is exploring whether precisely tuned electromagnetic pulses could be safely fired into people's ears to
temporarily subdue them.

NTT has friendlier uses in mind. If the sensation of movement can be captured for playback, then people can better understand what a ballet dancer or an Olympian gymnast is doing, and that could come handy in teaching such skills. And it may also help people dodge oncoming cars or direct a rescue worker in a dark tunnel, NTT researchers say. They maintain that the point is not to control people against their will.

Here is a link to NTT's "Parasitic Humanoid" project which focuses on the Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation technology.