Technology with attitude

Brain-Controlled Chess Game Proves Cognitive Abilities of Locked-in Patients


Playing chess while the player sits motionless? Yes, the player moves the pieces across the board by thinking only. The brain-controlled chess is made by a group of researchers from the Berlin Institute of Technology.

Lead researcher, Michael Tangermann explains how the game works saying: “What we are seeing here is a brain-computer interface, it is a connection between the computer and the brain and it reads the intention of the player and then converts it in to a move. The player must therefore only imagine which pawn he wants to move and where, then the computer recognises that and makes the move. So, the person can play without using his hands”.

But in order to play brain chess there is more preparation involved than just unfolding boards and setting out the pieces for at the start of the experiment, the player attaches an electroencephalography (EEG) cap to the head.

Dr. Michael Tangermann, PostDoc in machine learning at the Intelligent Data Analysis group at the Berlin Institute of Technology (Technische Universität Berlin)

Out of the 64 electrodes in the cap, he activates 14 which measure brain activity in key areas which detects which piece the person intends to move. It’s an intricate task and the cap must be fitted precisely for accurate readings.

As soon as the cap is fitted, a system calibrates the software in order to recognise the specific traits of the player’s brain activity.

The brain chess computer is just the tip of the iceberg and the technology could have serious medical implications, improving patients’ lives for the TOBI project is all about helping patients with severe motor neurone diseases communicate with the outside world.

Tangermann said “The background to this demonstration is that we are researching for very severely motor impaired patients that are not in a position to make chess moves and that are maybe not even in the position to communicate. However, often the patients are cognitively still as capable as we are. So, we want to give them the possibility to show us what they are actually capable of.”

According to Tangermann there is often a perception that patients who can’t move or communicate are less mentally capable, he hopes the chess project will help to change all this.

Tangermann says “You have to imagine that you walk in to a room where there is a patient in a bed and that patient can’t move at all. Your immediate reaction might be that this patient also does not have any cognitive abilities. But when the same patient plays chess, and maybe even beats you in chess, then you can really say that his or her cognitive abilities are top-notch.”

There are hundreds of games in the world that can be played on Tangermann’s system. In the early stages of its development they used technology from other games like Tetris. But they eventually settled on chess, played in its modern form in Europe since the 15th Century, because it more thoroughly tested the brain’s cognitive abilities.

“We picked chess because this ‘game of the kings’ really is a very cognitively intensive game. We know that some people think the game is a sport and I think it is pure cognitive achievement when you play this game well,” Tangermann says.

The brain controlled chess project was launched in November 2008 with the help of a European Union fund called “Tools for Brain controlled interaction” or TOBI. The equipment used in this experiment costs thousands of dollars but Tangerman says costs will decrease as the technology develops. In total the team at the Berlin Institute of Technology in Berlin received some 900-thousand Euro (1.2 dollar million USD) to create tools for interaction through brain activity.