Sword Art Online: The Beginning Project just electrified the anime and gaming world by announcing that the very first VR-MMO would bring SAO to life by combining Oculus Rift virtual reality tech with IBM supercomputers and Artificial Intelligence. The video game project is definitely the first step toward realizing Full Dive technology for video games, but DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) recently announced a new Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) that could make a real life NerveGear headset possible just in time for 2022.
While Sword Art Online: The Beginning Project is a far cry from the Full Dive technology of fiction, it is a starting point since it provides external audio and visual information through a headset. A full mobile Full Dive experience is possible now with a combination of motion-capture technology, the Virtuix Omnidirectional Treadmill, and the Oculus Rift. The next logical step is a Brain-Machine Interface that allows the video game world to interact with the signals created by the human brain.
In the anime, a headset called NerveGear interfaced directly with the human brain and allowed for mechanical reception (the feeling of contact), thermoception (the feeling of hot and cold), stretch reception (the feeling of muscle compression), kinesthesia (the sensing of body movements), proprioception (the sensation of a body’s place), and equilibrioception (the sensation of balance). Such a device does not need access to the entire brain since the cranial nerves serve as a junction for input and output.
The real life technology is rapidly advancing. In 2013, ExtremeTech reports how researchers at Harvard University built a human brain interface capable of controlling the physical movements of other animals. University of Washington researchers upped the ante by creating a human brain-to-brain interface, which allowed one researcher to control the hand of the other researcher with his brain.
— RT (@RT_com) September 24, 2015
Three years later, in 2016, the U.S. military’s DARPA recently announced they had developed a BMI that does not require invasive surgery. In the Matrix movies, the brain plugs looked like an industrial socket at the base of the skull, but real life was about as horrifying since older BMI technology requires cracking and removing parts of the skull.
The new DARPA stentrode (passive stent-electrode recording array) avoids craniotomy surgery entirely, although surgery is still required for implanting the stent-like interface through blood vessels. Currently, the new BMI has been tested successfully on sheep, and human trials begin in 2017.
The next step in DARPA’s Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program aims at developing a system capable of communicating “clearly and individually with any of up to one million neurons in a given region of the brain.” This is important since simulating a real-life Sword Art Online MMO would require sending audio and visual information directly to the brain.
“Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,” said Phillip Alvelda, the NESD program manager, according to the DARPA press release. “Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”
The real-life applications of this technology also happen to mimic the Sword Art Online anime. The story had the NerveGear being created in 2022 for video games, but later on, the third generation Full Dive tech introduced the Medicuboid, a device focused on medical applications. The NESD program is largely focused on providing high-definition sensory information to soldiers in the battlefield, but the “program’s ambitious goals” will require “integrated breakthroughs across numerous disciplines including neuroscience, synthetic biology, low-power electronics, photonics, medical device packaging and manufacturing, systems engineering, and clinical testing.”
Obviously, the biggest difference between the SAO NerveGear and DARPA’s BMI is the necessity for a cranial implant. A completely wireless approach would require stimulating neural states with sufficiently high spatial and temporal resolution. MRI has the highest resolution of non-intrusive brain imaging technologies, but even then that’s not a feasible solution.
It should be possible for implants to be completely wireless. In early 2016, the journal Nature published results on a functioning brain implant chip the size of a grain of rice. The brain chip is also capable of dissolving harmlessly after its purpose is completed, but it also doesn’t require wires since it wirelessly communicates with computers used by surgeons to monitor the patient’s body.
In the end, the brain implant chip of Reki Kawahara’s Accel World may become the reality. The author of Sword Art Online has admitted the two anime worlds are connected, but in the real world, it seems combining the brain implant chip and the NerveGear headset is the only way we’ll be able to experience a VRMMORPG by pronouncing, “Link start!”
[Image via Sword Art Online]