Published October 05, 2007
Thumbs. Who needs 'em?
Technology developers are poised in the next month to debut new "brain-computer interfaces," which will allow video game players to control their PlayStations and Xboxes with their thoughts, not their fingers.
The devices are powered by neurosensors, attached to points on the scalps of players, where the "Alpha," "Theta" and "Beta" brain waves can be detected, according to researchers.
These sensors are connected to the game controls, which move the on-screen characters left or right, up or down, faster or slower, depending upon the thoughts of the players. "Frontlines," "Doom" and "Tetris" may never be the same again.
"The technology is similar to the electroencephalogram that neurologists and other doctors use to measure brain activity," said Domenic Greco, a doctor of clinical psychology and the founder of SmartBrain Games, a developer in San Marcos, Calif. "It's a neuro-feedback system which sends a signal of brain activity to a specially designed game controller."
These consumer technologies have been in development for years, but there will be "announcements that are coming in the next month with several collaborators," said Stanley Yang, CEO of NeuroSky, a developer of BCI sensors based in San Jose, Calif. "This is with well-known companies."
Some of the developers are keeping details very closely guarded, however.
"We very much appreciate your interest in Emotiv Systems and would love to keep you updated on all the news," said spokeswoman Susanna Hughes in San Francisco. "Unfortunately, at this time Emotiv will not be able to participate as the team is very much focused on development of the product, but there will be some announcements in the next couple of months."
The secretive culture surrounding the technology development is somewhat understandable, as these kinds of technologies first emerged in government laboratories.
NASA developed brain-computer interfaces for flight simulators at its Langley space flight center during the 1990s, and earlier this decade it licensed the technology to SmartBrain Games.
Other developers emerged out of the fringes of the medical sector, where experimental brain-computer interfaces were used by psychologists and neurologists and other clinicians to train children with ADD how to concentrate or quadriplegics how to use their limbs again after an accident.
These kinds of technologies emerged a few years ago and worked with an array of off-the-shelf games and game platforms. But they were designed for doctors, not for consumers, as the outputs were still similar to those seen on brain wave monitors at hospitals.
"One of the major challenges was that individuals had to come to an office of the doctor — psychologists, pediatricians, neurologists — and [the doctors] would administer the training," Greco said. "That was the downside — professionals needed to monitor this training, listening for feedback, and coach [patients] through it."
With the new consumer versions of this technology coming to market, consumers may see several benefits of this kind of brain training in addition to the excitement of playing a game without hand controls.
One benefit is that players can "improve their general concentration and focus," Greco said. "That has a lot of potential with the aging of the baby boom."
They can also improve their ability to relax, as stressful thoughts will speed up a game, and cool, calm and collected thoughts will slow things down on-screen, Greco said.
"You can also check other mental states — like attention and focus," Yang added.
This feature can also alter the game, in real-time, making it more challenging to play if the sensor detects that the player is bored in the early stages of play. "If the game is trying to detect your focus, it would be on a zero to 100 scale," Yang said.
There are other applications available in the lab, but the developers aren't rushing out to market with them.
"We have a lot of different capabilities, but we're only releasing capabilities that are proven for everybody," Yang said. "There is a big difference between science and engineering — engineered products work for everybody all the time.
"We try to go the engineering way — not pushing out all of our technologies, but only those that are tested in various temperatures, humidity and with different age groups. We want this to be viewed as a mature, wearable technology."
Scientists said there may be side-effects to the technology, as there are with all new innovations.
Greco is concerned that consumers may get into a relatively relaxed brain state, characterized by "Alpha" waves — the same brain waves present when one is about to sleep — then go out to the garage and try to drive a real car, with adverse consequences, such as an accident.
Said Greco: "When you start messing with the brain, that raises concerns."