Mind-controlled games become a reality, despite concern from scientists

Imagine a future where you control computer games using only the power of your mind.

That future is not so far off, thanks to the efforts of Emotiv Systems and NeuroSky, two companies taking the medical technology of EEG and transforming it into a platform for mind-controlled gaming. However, some experts are wary that this might be a dangerous misapplication of a therapeutic tool.

As pictured below, their devices work by reading brain waves through a set of carefully positions electrodes. The intensity of the brain waves can then be used as a controlling variable in a game. In medicine, the idea has already been tested with quadriplegics, allowing them to operate switches and wheelchairs by mind-control.

Another medical application is in the treatment of mental disorders. Smart BrainGames has developed a racing game in which the user increases their speed by becoming calmer. However, this is solely intended for relaxation and “muscle re-education”, not for entertainment.

The crux of the scientific concern over mind-control games is based in the possibility that such games could lead to altered states outside the game scenario. An an example, it’s possible that a driver could remain excessively calm in real live, leading to slower reflexes on the road.

Speaking in Wired, Emotiv’s CEO Nam Do defended his technology, distancing it from the neurofeedback tools used for the treatment of mental disorders: “Emotiv’s technology is based on an entirely different fundamental concept, developed and researched extensively by our own team of scientists, which does not involve the use of conventional bio- or neurofeedback at all, so the concerns do not apply. There is no two-way interaction, and the technology does not require the user to train their brain to get into a predetermined state in any way.”

The technology:

Emotiv’s headset is very sophisticated, employing 18 electrodes and is able to detect emotional states, facial expressions such as smiles and winks, and even focussed thoughts, such as the will to move a particular object. They’ve also developed an API to allow Emotiv headsets to work with existing games. Nam Do envisions that this will immediately lead to its uptake on the Xbox 360 and the PS3, and that it could later be integrated into multiplayer worlds such as Second Life.

Neurosky goes to the other extreme and uses only one electrode, leading to a very cheap, $20 headset rather than Emotiv’s several hundred dollar price tag. Though less accurate, it may well be enough, at least according to Klaus-Robert Müller, a computer scientist at the Fraunhofer Institute in Berlin whose work suggests that one electrode is sufficient to produce useful data.

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