Monday, March 12, 2007

Mind Control Technology For Videogames

A start-up company this week is giving the first public demonstration of a new technology for letting videogame players control actions with their minds.

Emotiv Systems Inc., a closely held company with offices in San Francisco and Sydney, Australia, plans to exploit electroencephalography, or EEG technology, which measures electrical activity of the brain and has long been used in the medical profession. The company envisions players strapping on helmets with electrodes that read brain signals, allowing them to issue simple commands to enhance game play.

Others have discussed similar goals, including start-ups NeuroSky and CyberLearning Technology LLC, but Emotiv says its approach is the most versatile. Where other technologies tend to detect mental states such as concentration or calmness, Emotiv says its technology also can distinguish between patterns of brain activity that can be designated to correspond to specific commands.

"Our vision is that the next generation of man-machine communications will not be limited to just conscious expressions, but nonconscious expressions also will play a big part," says Nam Do, Emotiv's chief executive officer.

In a demonstration, Emotiv researcher Marco Della Torre donned a prototype headset and was able to move objects on a computer screen by visualizing pushing or lifting them -- in one case teaming up with a reporter to pick up and throw objects in a videogame based on the Harry Potter books.

The technology also projected Mr. Della Torre's smiles, winks or other facial expressions onto the face of an animated character, while software registered changes in his level of excitement.

In some cases, there was a noticeable time lag before Mr. Della Torre's mental commands produced an effect on the screen. Commands were limited to a predetermined set of actions, such as moving objects a fixed distance up and down or right and left. Accomplishing those feats requires a user to teach the company's software, by associating repeated thought patterns with individual commands.

The technology is more suited to add special extras in games than to replace conventional controllers for the bulk of the action. "It's not to replace the joystick," Mr. Do said.

"People are hungry for different ways to interact," agreed Reeve S. Thompson, vice president of studio operations at Secret Level Inc., a San Francisco videogame developer owned by Sega Sammy Holdings Inc. As evidence, he cited the success of the Nintendo Co. Wii game controllers that track a user's motions.

After being shown the Emotiv technology, Mr. Thompson said he began brainstorming about ways the technology could be used in games. The requirement of teaching the software to recognize specific thought patterns is "definitely going to be a challenge," he said. But he suggests that process also could be built into the structure of the game -- a bit like Yoda taught Luke Skywalker to "use the force" in the "Star Wars" movies.

The company is demonstrating the technology at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week and today will announce a software-developers kit to help programmers modify their games to use the technology. Emotiv plans to sell gaming headsets, though the price or exact timing haven't been determined. The company and others in the field are also exploring applications outside of gaming, such as helping people who are paralyzed or suffer from other physical handicaps.

Emotiv was founded in 2003 by a team that includes Allan Snyder, a pioneer in fiber-optic technology and neuroscience who is one of the best-known scientists in Australia.

The company's board includes Ed Fries, a former Microsoft Corp. executive who co-founded the Xbox game-console project there.

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