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BrainGate2 Helps the Paralyzed Access the Internet in New Ways

Tech

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Braingate’s micro-electrode array is making it easier for the paralyzed to navigate the Web. Will designers, developers, and brands be ready to greet them accessibly?

BrainGate came to prominence in 2017 when it allowed a quadriplegic man to move his arm through thought alone. Now, BrainGate2 is reportedly simplifying how paralyzed individuals navigate the internet, and their findings could affect how you present yourself and your brand online.

BrainGate is an array of strategically placed micro-electrodes that has been used to decode neural signals associated with movement. Previous uses of this technology have been localized to facilitate limb movement. But now, in a recent trial, three individuals were able to use non-modified tablets to use apps and explore the Web without adaptations.

The trio of participants, according to Engadget, “had electrode grids implanted over part of their motor cortex — the area of the brain that helps control movement — which picked up neural activity indicating they were thinking about moving a cursor on the screen.” Those neural activity patterns were sent to a tablet wirelessly paired with a virtual mouse. This process allowed subjects to stream music, text others, and browse the Web, even facilitating a real-time live chat between two of the study’s participants. The study’s findings brings new hope for intuitive web navigation for “people with spinal cord injury, brainstem stroke, and ALS,” among others, according to Braingate.

What’s important to note is that participants were able to navigate interfaces on the tested apps and utilities without having access to all the functions that a tablet typically demonstrates; click-and-drag and multitouch, for example, couldn’t be easily completed by these tools. For app developers, as well as companies considering hosting options for their content, knowledge of what would be easiest to navigate by modified systems is an important consideration. What’s more, this trial was conducted with Android devices, and the accessibility could be extended further by enabling the accessibility options that came standard with the device.

Although the report didn’t specify precisely what apps or utilities were used as the trio navigated the internet, any tools that employ accessible design to develop and position their content—and, by extension, any brands or organizations that prioritize accessible design—will extend the reach of their awareness and adoption. A few tips for designing or hosting content with accessibility in mind:

  • Accessible design, often, ends up being better for everyone. The avatars we develop content or platforms for often capture a narrow segment of who may actually use it. While we shouldn’t abandon avatars as a means to identify target populations, we should cast a wider net. Smart Design’s John Anderson recommends thinking about the most advanced and unencumbered user, as well as the user who may be highly challenged by our original impulse…and then advocating for a solution that serves both populations equally well.
  • Vary the formats in which you present information. Last month in New York, designer Marie van Driessche urged people to think of how many ways people could need to consume information, and then preemptively provide options. The solution, according to 99U? “Make sure your product or website includes multiple options for how to engage. For instance, when posting a video, include transcripts, video captions, and additional video of a person signing. That way, users can select the option that’s best for them.”
  • Prepare for your “fix” to evolve. van Driessche further shared, “Just as each human capabilities change over time—as they learn sign language, or lose mobility in their fingers—so too must accessible design evolve with them.” Paralysis can be temporary; similarly, those with degenerative diseases may need more assistance over time. Building products and utilities that can adapt with individuals over time will build the best loyalty as conditions evolve.

Although Braingate’s hardware is still far too cumbersome to be used in a widespread capacity, its miniaturization, and subsequent wider adoption is on the way. The best developers, designers, and brands, will be ready when the time comes.

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