So Minority Report came out in 2002 and everybody got stoked on how Tom Cruise was controlling that computer with nothing but exaggerated hand gestures and that squinty brow of his. Well screw that! Brain-Computer Interface, guys! Let’s not beat around the science bush here and just come out with it: these things let you control computers with your brain. Actually.
Granted, it would have been ha-ha funny if Cruise had been just sitting there all squinty while images moved across the screen seemingly at random. But this is real stuff. Check out the NeuroSky Mindwave headset. You put it on your head and do things on computers—in fact—while preserving every last precious calorie.
NeuroSky started supplying their BCI technology to partner companies who used it in products like the Mindflex (Mattel), a table top game in which the player moves a levitating ball through a series of hoops and chutes using concentration to control the ball’s altitude. Square Enix, creators of the Final Fantasy video game series, teamed up with NeuroSky to release a zombie thriller, Judecca, that uses the same tech to supplement the console controller. Players must concentrate in order for the zombies to become visible to the character in-game. Likely the prize for most ‘oh-yeah-duh’ NeuroSky mashup was Uncle Milton’s Star Wars Force Trainer which lets nerds of all shapes and sizes harness the mystical powers of the Jedi, slash, a floating ball in a tube. Sarcastic trivialization aside, this technology is, again, letting humans move objects in space with their brains.
The #AwesomeScience behind this is based on Electroencephalography(EEG), a super long and obtuse word for looking at brain…with electronics. More exactly, EEG devices read the electrical fluctuations put off by your functioning brain using sensors gooed onto your skull cover with conductive gel. Except the Mindwave doesn’t need goo, so the perm stays. Also it only costs, like, $99 bucks; unlike institutional EEG rigs which price in the many $1000’s through $infinity range. Of course the headset is a pared down version so it doesn’t pick up as much info as its older siblings, but, whatever, it’s not like I’m trying to look at a bunch of blinky bleep-bloop data readouts of shit my brain’s doing. I just want to use a computer via my mind! Seriously.
So the Mindwave picks up three different brain data sorts: you’ve got your basic attentive vs meditative states. These are going to be the most common inputs in the current applications because of how easy they are for developers to utilize. The headset measures these two states—which are not mutually exclusive—and reports a value in a 0-100 scale so that programmers can set target values wherever they’d like. Going deeper, there are more sciencey recordings like wacky frequencies of neural oscillations. You know, the Alpha, Beta, Theta, Delta Gamma stuff hippies are always citing in stoned conversations about lucid dreaming, but with more clout because this is real science.
For those of us who are just putting the thing on our heads this all means that it can tell if you’re relaxed or intently focused and when you blink or smile. It’s like right vs left-clicking on a mouse. The computer is programmed to interpret these states differently, same deal.
Now, obviously, a device that allows you to control things with your brain is a potentially lucrative product. It’s no surprise that NeuroSky has been able to raise millions over the past six years towards getting this stuff on the shelves. That more people don’t own one already is likely due to something called (by me, right now) the Dreamcast Syndrome. Otherwise known as going to market with too few titles. Current offerings range from utilities that allow users to monitor their attention levels in the hope of finding their ideal brainstates (potentially useful to athletes, meditators, and folks diagnosed with ADHD, et al.), to games which translate a user’s attention levels into digital signal inputs in a simple range of in-game controls. Totally cool since you’re using your brain, but as an entertainment device it’s not quite off the bench. With cutting-edge games like Call of Duty and Skyrim out there, it’s going to be tough drawing in consumers—even for the chance to use a spectacularly novel device like the Mindwave.
But! Tansy Brook, Head of Communications over at NeuroSky, assures me that the next few months will be pretty exciting. Plans for a mobile headset to work with Android and iOS (current headsets are for PC and Mac only), as well as new apps for both versions.
Here’s the real deal, if I may:
Yes, the tech is young. It’s no Kinect here, sure. But this field should be a developer’s playground right now. It’s out there, Open Source. The hardware is inexpensive. Fair, the market wont reward you for pooping out just any old buggy $.99’er like on other platforms, but if somebody could kickstart (hint hint) this thing with a super awesome app? Man. They will make some serious cash. Not to mention earning the right to call yourselves “the dudes who made using-your-brain-to-do-shit-on-computers really popular.” Talk about a pick up line. Get on it.
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