April 15, 2024

‘Body Internet’ may eliminate the need for smartphones by changing the way we use technology

One day, humans could use touch and thoughts instead of screens to interact with the digital world.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — What if the end of the smartphone era comes down to the ability to use your skin (rather than a screen or even voice commands) to interact with the Internet? Or using your mind to control devices without looking at them?

The innovations being developed at Purdue University may not only help reverse the trend of putting every possible task on a smartphone or other single device, but they may also completely change the way humans have interacted with devices. until now.

In a few years, this might look like making a payment by tapping your finger on a machine instead of with a credit card or smartphone. Maybe you can access a GPS route with your feet or transfer a file to someone by shaking their hand.

And 15 to 20 years from now, imagine adjusting your home’s thermostat simply thinking you want a colder or warmer temperature.

Purdue professor Shreyas Sen’s lab is working to make this future a reality through inventions that allow your body to be your local Internet connection for devices you wear, hold, or have inside you, like a pacemaker. People could perform the same digital tasks and more, but using their physical touch and, eventually, their mind instead of a screen.

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“Right now, our gateway to the Internet is this very interesting box we have in our hands. We find ourselves with our heads down staring at it for a significant fraction of our waking time. If that’s not the kind of future we want, then the technology needs to evolve,” said Sen, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue’s Elmore. “Instead, the smartphone could be deconstructed and distributed around it in suitable places, so that it becomes invisible to the eye.”

Smartwatches, wireless headphones and other wearable devices are already deconstructing some features of the smartphone. But you usually still need a screen to interact with them. Even emerging devices that don’t have screens, like Humane’s clip-on AI Pin, require voice commands and are designed to be more of a smartphone replacement, consolidating functions into a single device.

Sen’s lab has invented two ways that would allow humans to go from simply coexisting with technology locked behind a screen or accessible via voice commands to collaborating directly with it. Patent applications for these inventions have been filed through the Purdue Innovates Office of Technology Commercialization.

One invention, called “Wi-R,” establishes an “Internet” within the body that smartphones, laptops, smart watches, insulin pumps and other wearable or implantable devices can use to communicate with each other. You can also expand your internet network to other devices or even other humans just by tapping on them. Maybe you could send a photo of someone pushing them, for example.

The other invention is a new brain implant concept that in a couple of decades could be available for humans to use to control technology with their thoughts. Sen’s lab published initial findings on this implant concept in Nature Electronics earlier this year, showing how it has the potential to solve key problems in developing implants for “mind control.” Nature Electronics also featured this research in its 2023 Brain-Computer Interface Advances feature article.

The idea for the implant is based on discoveries Sen and his students made while inventing the technology behind Wi-R. This technology allows the human body to transfer data fast enough that any device only needs to be in direct or close contact with the person’s skin to do what the person wants it to do. From head to toe, the skin would be the interface to an Internet network rather than a screen, effectively establishing an “Internet of the body.”

This chip, an invention called Wi-R, allows the human body to become an Internet connection for other devices in direct or close contact with the person’s skin. (Image by Purdue University/Greta Bell) Download image

What makes this technology possible are electrical signals that operate at a much lower frequency than Bluetooth or other radio signals that currently help connect devices. These low-frequency signals are found in the so-called electroquasistatic range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Using electroquasistatic signals, Wi-R allows data transfer to be much faster than with Bluetooth communication and accessible only through a person’s skin.

In 2020, Sen, some of his former students, and other Purdue students founded the startup Ixana to commercialize Wi-R. How Wi-R is used in the real world will depend on how companies choose to make it a product. But earlier this year at CES, an annual technology show in Las Vegas, Sen and the Ixana team demonstrated that Wi-R can stream music through touch.

They showed that when streaming music from a smartphone in your hand, Wi-R allows you to transfer this music through your body and play it out loud from another device, such as a speaker, only when you touch that device. They also showed how music could be transferred to another person by touching their skin, allowing that person to play their music out loud through another device in contact with their skin. (Watch this video to see how).

By developing Wi-R, Sen’s lab became one of the first to discover how humans could communicate digitally strictly through touch.

From touch to “mental control”?

As Sen and his students further explored the capabilities of these signals, the lab also became the first to demonstrate electroquasistatic signals that enable communication in the brain. This is possible using a brain implant that Sen’s laboratory has invented that transmits these signals.

The idea is that eventually a human being could use these implants, placed at key points in the brain, to control technology without even touching or looking at it. In the future, this might look like using your thoughts to turn on an oven or writing and sending a text message.

sen implant
At the tip of this finger is the first brain implant concept that allows communication in the brain using electroquasistatic signals. (Purdue University Image/Kelsey Lefever) Download Image

A brain implant for “mind control” is not a new idea, but electroquasistatic signals would provide several advantages over other brain implant concepts aimed at controlling technology with thoughts.

For one thing, this method would not have wires inside the brain. Neuralink is starting clinical trials on the technology it is developing that requires 64 wires to connect an implant to around a thousand electrodes throughout the brain. The cables and electrodes are intended to capture as many of a person’s thoughts as possible so they can be translated into actions that control the technology outside the body.

The concept Sen is developing makes good use of the brain’s natural ability to transport electrical signals. Brain tissue, rather than wires, would help transmit information to the implant using electroquasistatic signals. In theory, this implant concept could transmit data more than a hundred times faster than other methods being considered instead of cables.

Because the brain has billions of neurons, a wireless brain implant concept would need to transmit data at least at a rate of tens of megabits per second to capture even a thousand neurons simultaneously. No technology can do that in the brain yet, Sen said, but electroquasistatic communication so far shows the most potential.

“You can’t stop machines from improving humans and machines from constantly changing our lives,” Sen said. “But our research shows that it is possible for these machines to help you without always having to look at a screen.”

Sen’s research is funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation. The Elmore Family School of Electrical and Computer Engineering is one of the university’s computer science departments, which are part of the Purdue Computes initiative.

About Purdue University

Purdue University is a public research institution with excellence at scale. Ranked among the top 10 public universities and with two schools among the top 4 in the United States, Purdue discovers and disseminates knowledge of unsurpassed quality and scale. More than 105,000 students study at Purdue across all modalities and locations, 50,000 of them in-person at the West Lafayette campus. Committed to affordability and accessibility, Purdue’s main campus has frozen tuition for 12 consecutive years. See how Purdue never stops in the persistent pursuit of the next big leap, including its first comprehensive urban campus in Indianapolis, the new Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr. School of Business, and Purdue Computes, at https://www.purdue. edu/president/strategic-initiatives.

Writer/Media Contact: Kayla Albert, 765-494-2432, wiles5@purdue.edu

Fountain: Shreyas Sen, shreyas@purdue.edu


Biphasic Quasi-Static Brain Communication for Energy-Efficient Wireless Neural Implants

Nature Electronics


BodyWire-HCI: Enabling new interaction modalities by communicating strictly during touch through electroquasistatic communication of the human body

ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction


Enabling a network of covert body areas through electroquasistatic communication of the human body

Scientific Reports


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