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GDC08: Gaming On The Brain (Literally)

Brain Gaming

By Evan Ackerman

There were a lot of peripherals kicking around the Game Developer’s Conference expo floor, but most of them, however cool they might be, are just faster or better or fancier reincarnations of existing technology. The biggest wow factor as far as gaming interfaces goes was something I wouldn’t have even considered to be a viable technology, until I tried it out for myself today: brain-controlled gaming.

There were, in fact, two companies that I saw today offering brain interfaces for gaming. Both Emotiv Systems and NeuroSky were showing off wearable brainwave sensors, designed to pick up the faint electrical signals that your neurons emit whenever they’re busy. It’s the exact same thing as an electroencephalograph machine, just simpler and without the conductive goo or the metal pins in your scalp. These interfaces can’t tell exactly what you’re thinking, but they can make educated guesses about the type of thinking you’re doing. I know, it sounds like it could never really be anything more than a gimmick, but the thing is, it totally works, and it’s an entirely new gaming experience. Read more after the jump.

Emotiv EPOQ

The first company I talked to was Emotiv Systems. Their EPOQ neuroheadset was at GDC last year, but this year, they were showing off an operational, game-integrated system and I got a chance to run through a demo that made me feel like a superhero. The hardware consists of a sort of headband with a bunch of spidery sensors that are placed on your scalp in specific places. Unlike an EEG, there’s no conductive paste necessary, and the sensors are padded. Initial setup for a new user took all of 30 seconds, although much more detailed calibration is possible, and the finer the calibration, the finer the control the headset is capable of.

The demo was pretty straightforward, but highly effective at illustrating the possibilities of the EPOQ technology. Using an XBox 360 controller, I went through a course which taught me to focus my brainwaves to accomplish goals. For example, I could scare off little sprite things by growling at them, as the EPOQ could sense that I was clenching my jaw muscles. It’s not just sensing muscle signaling, though… I was also able to levitate a rock by relaxing my mind, and then doing nothing but focusing on lifting the rock. That’s all. I sat there, looking at the rock on the monitor, and just willed it to lift, and it lifted! I was completely blown away, and me describing it here doesn’t do it justice, it’s something you need to experience firsthand. Yeah, I know that doesn’t help you much, but since it’s an entirely mental exercise, it’s not something that comes across effectively in video or pictures, although I took some video anyway. Keep in mind that this guy isn’t using any physical controls, all he’s doing is thinking about lifting that rock:

The system doesn’t just differentiate between levels of mental activity or relaxation; in another demo, you can control a cube with your thoughts. After calibrating the system, you can will the cube to move around or disappear, among other things. The EPOQ is able to tell when you’re thinking “move” and when you’re thinking “disappear,” and with a bit of practice, you can achieve fairly fine levels of mental control. Now that the hardware and firmware is in place, it’s up to game developers to effectively integrate it into a system. The hardware itself will cost about $300 when it ships in late 2008; you can reserve yours here. [ Emotiv ]

NeuroSkyI also stopped in at NeuroSky, who has developed a similar technology, albeit perhaps slightly less complex. Their brainwave sensor focuses mainly on either attention or meditation, which is sort of analogous to how focused you are, or how much you’re concentrating. Their demo let you select from a few different abilities like “lift,” “move,” and “burn.” The effectiveness of the ability depends directly on how strong your mental focus is, much like the EPOQ, and if you’re good, you can lift an X-Wing out of a lake. Here’s a spot about NeuroSky on the Discovery Channel, which does a pretty good job of illustrating what it is and how it works, with a little bit of telekinetic carnage thrown in for good measure:

NeuroSky also suggested that their products could have medical benefits, say for children with ADHD. With the MindSet, they can play games to teach their brains to be calm, and once they have the mental process figured out, hopefully it might carry over into other activities. The most impressive feature of the NeuroSky MindSet, I think, is the price… It’s only about $50 to OEMs. Look for it late this year in some sort of Sega platform, but they couldn’t be any more specific than that. [ NeuroSky ]

[ Game Developer's Conference ]