|Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] Empathic Computing
|June 8, 2008 Novelties Moving Mountains With the Brain, Not a Joystick
By ANNE EISENBERG
STILL using a mouse, keyboard, joystick or motion sensor to control the
action in a video game? It may be time to try brain power instead.
A new headset system picks up electrical activity from the brain, as well
as from facial muscles and other spots, and translates it into on-screen
commands. This lets players vanquish villains not with a click, but with
Put on the headset, made by Emotiv Systems in San Francisco, and when
a giant boulder blocks the path in a game you are playing, you can
levitate it â€” not by something as crude as a keystroke, but just by
concentrating on raising it, said Tan Le, Emotivâ€™s president. The
headset captures electrical signals when you concentrate; then the
computer processes these signals and pairs a screen action with them,
like lifting a stone or repairing a falling bridge.
The headset is the consumer cousin of brain-computer interfaces developed
in research labs and used, for example, by monkeys who manipulate
prosthetic arms with thoughts. The monkeysâ€™ intentions are detected by
sensors, translated into machine language and used to move the arm. In
general, some interfaces use sensors implanted directly in the brain;
others use electrode-studded caps.
For humans, Emotiv plans to have its noninvasive, wireless EPOC
headset ($299) on sale in time for Christmas, Ms. Le said. With 16
sensors that lightly touch the head, it uses a standard technology,
electroencephalography, or EEG, to pick up electrical signals from the
scalpâ€™s surface and convert them to actions that control or enhance
what happens on screen.
To help players master the art of moving on-screen objects solely through
concentration, the headset will come bundled with a game, set on a magical
mountain, that includes practice exercises, said Geoffrey Mackellar,
Emotivâ€™s research and development manager. â€œYou clear the mind,â€
he said, and then do 30 to 40 seconds of training, by concentrating,
for instance, on visualizing a block lifting from the earth. â€œOn the
first or second attempt, you can lift it at will.â€
Other, harder challenges follow. In constant feedback, he said, the
machine learns more about how users think just as users grow more skillful
Many game developers are incorporating the EPOCâ€™s biofeedback abilities
into their applications, Ms. Le said.
The system doesnâ€™t just lift boulders. It can also detect some of a
playerâ€™s facial expressions and emotional responses: smile, frown or
wink, for instance, and an avatar on screen can do so, too. Grow bored
during a battle, and the system can detect ennui and supply a few dragons,
or change the music. The device tracks a total of about 30 responses.
A chip inside the headset collects the signals and sends them wirelessly
to a receiver plugged into a U.S.B. port of the computer, where most of
the processing occurs, Dr. Mackellar said.
The sleek Emotiv headset is a version of the EEG cap used for decades
to record brain electrical activity, said Nathan Fox, a professor of
human development at the University of Maryland.
â€œThere can be as many as 256 electrodes at one time in a cap,â€ he
said. â€˜The placement corresponds in some rough approximation to brain
areas that are underneath the scalp.â€
Medical-grade EEG caps are used in research to eavesdrop on the brain
as it plans motion and to translate these plans, for example, into
cursor actions on a screen so paralyzed people can control a computer
to write messages.
The Emotiv headset, too, taps the power of the mind, as well as using
feedback from muscles, Dr. Mackellar said.
â€œWe definitely read brain waves â€” no doubt about it â€” but we also
read other things,â€ he said. â€œIn classical EEG, movements of the
face and muscles are regarded as noise. But we use some of it, rather
than discard it.â€
Anton Nijholt, a professor of computer science at the University of Twente
in the Netherlands who does research on innovative interfaces for games,
looks forward to the extra means of interaction that EEG headsets will
provide. But he doesnâ€™t think that all consumers will be able to use
them to raise mountains.
â€œNot all people are able to display the mental activity necessary to
move an object on a screen,â€ he said. â€œSome people may not be able
to imagine movement in a way that EEG can detect.â€
So far, Dr. Mackellar said, all 200 testers of the headset had indeed
been able to move on-screen objects mentally.
ANOTHER headset, the Neural Impulse Actuator ($169), just released by
the OCZ Technology Group in Sunnyvale, Calif., has three sensors in a
headband that pick up electrical activity primarily from muscles and
convert it into commands, said Michael Schuette, vice president for
technology development. Players of shooting games, for instance, may
use eye movement to trigger a shot, shaving milliseconds off of their
response time and sparing their hands.
The exact source of the electrical activity the headset is picking up
may not be important, said Dr. Jonathan Wolpaw, chief of the laboratory
for nervous system disorders at the Wadsworth Center of the New York
State Department of Health in Albany. He uses EEG caps as part of
brain-computer interfaces for severely paralyzed people. His systems
record brain activity alone, but for a consumer game device, a cap that
picks up a mixture of brain and muscle activity may be acceptable.
â€œIn a lot of these commercial uses, people donâ€™t care if the activity
is coming from the brain or forehead muscles,â€ he said. â€œIt doesnâ€™t
matter to them so long as they can play the game.â€
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