Sunday, March 18, 2007

Mind Games

How would you like to rearrange the famous sarsens of Stonehenge just by thinking about it? Or improve your virtual golf by focusing your attention on the ball for a few moments before taking your next putt on the green-on-the-screen? Those are the promises of, respectively, Emotiv Systems and NeuroSky, two young companies based in California, that plan to transport the measurement of brain waves from the medical sphere into the realm of computer games. If all goes well, their first products should be on the market next year.

Both Emotiv, which is based in San Francisco, and NeuroSky, of San Jose, think they have cracked these problems. Emotiv recently unveiled a prototype headset that has a mere 18 electrodes. Moreover, no gel is needed for these electrodes to make a good contact with the headset-wearer's scalp. Emotiv claims that its system can detect brain signals associated with facial expressions such as smiles and winks, different emotional states such as excitement and calmness, and even conscious thoughts such as the desire to move a particular object. It will not say precisely how this trick is done, but it seems to work well enough to make a virtual character in a game mimic a player's own facial expression, as well as permitting that player to move things around just by thinking about it.

According to Nam Do, Emotiv's boss, those applications are most likely to be single-player computer games running on machines such as Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3. In the longer term, though, he thinks the system will be ideal for controlling avatars (the visual representations of players) in multiplayer virtual worlds such as Second Life.

For Stanley Yang, the boss of NeuroSky, even 18 sensors seems too clunky. His firm's technology has reduced the brainwave pickup to the minimum specification imaginable—a single electrode. Existing versions of this electrode are small enough to fit into a mobile phone and Mr Yang claims they will soon be shrunk to the size of a thumbnail, enabling people to wear them without noticing.

Reducing the mind-reader to this bare minimum makes it cheap—about $20, compared with several hundred for Emotiv's headset—though it is not as precise. But that lack of precision may not matter. According to Klaus-Robert Müller, a computer scientist at the Fraunhofer Institute in Berlin who has been studying the problem for years, a single well-placed electrode is sufficient to gather meaningful information from brain waves. On the other hand, Dr Müller and his team have been unable, as yet, to produce a device that works well outside the cosseted environment of a laboratory.
Sounds pretty cool, unless you are part of the one-third of the population that is considered “illiterate”, meaning that not even a full-fledged medical EEG can convert your brain activities into actions.

via The Economist

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