Turning Brain-Computer Interfaces Into Child’s Play

Children with severe mobility limitations could soon receive a life-altering gift: the ability to control and play with toys using their minds.


Games. Electric cars. Laser light shows. These are gifts that most children would be thrilled to open.

Think2Switch headsets give kids with severe mobility limitations the ability to enjoy toys like these, too — by controlling them with their minds.

The invention is still in its early stages and limited to use in the lab, but the team behind it is working hard to make it so easy to use that it could be used at home. The project is a collaboration between researchers at the University of Alberta’s Assistive Technology Lab, the University of Calgary’s Pediatric Brain-Computer Interface Program (BCI 4 Kids), and Ontario-based industry partner Ideas for Independent Living.

The headset can read brain signals and act as a bridge for devices that can be operated with a switch. Instead of being limited to passively watching, it gives users a way to actively and independently participate in play.

And now as the inaugural winners of the Smart Technology Innovations Challenge, the team plans to use their prize money to refine their invention with input from Canadian families.

“Our brains are designed in a really lucky way in that the motor cortex and the activation of imagined movement can be read directly from electrodes just placed on your scalp,” said Eli Kinney-Lang, lead scientist at BCI 4 Kids Calgary, in a press release.

At the moment, however, brain-computer interfaces are too difficult for most consumers to use. Too much technical knowledge would be needed to get one set up and keep it tuned to work with a device in the desired way.

In particular, there is a big gap in these technologies when it comes to use by children. The research for this demographic is still limited.

The Think2Switch team believes that if children can learn to control simple toys, it could be a potential stepping stone to more complex devices.

“For kids with limited mobility, being able to use their brain to turn on a toy is going to be a really valuable beginner tool,” added Kim Adams, director of the Assistive Technology Lab.

“From that toy, they might progress to controlling a game or moving a power wheelchair, and from there they might progress to more control with the brain signals. I think it will slowly open up the world to them.”

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.