The future of brain-controlled gadgets

There's something almost carnal about the idea of a device that allows us to pilot our computers and gadgets with nothing but a thought. It's a dream fueled by thousands of science-fiction books, cartoons, comics, games, and movies—a desire hard-coded into many a geek's genetic makeup. And as far-fetched as the concept of brain-powered computers might sound, they're already a reality.

Actually, they've been a reality for almost 40 years now. Scientists have been working on Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) since the 1970s, but it wasn't until the last decade or so that we first began seeing commercially available versions of what was previously available only in DARPA-endorsed laboratories. Here's a look at where mind-controlled gadgetry stands today, and what the future may hold.

Enter NeuroSky

While Sony was the first to file a patent for neural interface devices, it was NeuroSky that came up with something we could take home from the store. The company made quite a splash with its introduction of the MindSet in 2007, and a number of other companies followed suit. In 2008, OCZ Technology introduced the Neural Impulse Actuator. In 2009, Emotive Systems released the EPOC, a 14-channel EEG headset that was the first commercial BCI to utilize dry sensor technology.

Was this the advent of something new and incredible? Yes and no. The fact that only NeuroSky's cat-eared Necomimi made it to one of Time magazine's 50 Best Inventions of the Year listings says a lot about where things currently stand.

Unfulfilled promise

It doesn't help that the nascent industry has had its share of bad press.

Steve Spohn, the Director of Outreach for the AbleGamers Foundation (which works to make games more accessible for people with disabilities), remembers the excitement that led up to the release of OCZ Technology's Neural Impulse Actuator. But then it came out.

Steve Spohn, AbleGamers Foundation

"When the device launched, we not only found out that the hype was far greater than what the device deserved but, in some cases, people had to do ridiculous things such as placing the device in their pants wrapped with aluminum foil just to get the device to do anything."

Discouraging as stories like this might be, they're not really the reason for the slow adoption of BCIs. For many people, it's the price.

Brain-powered peripherals are pricey. Guger Technologies' Intendix, which is being hailed as the first proper patient-ready and commercially available BCI, costs a staggering $12,250. Even a novelty item like the Necomimi will set you back a hundred bucks.

New developments

In spite of all this, Spohn believes that it's only a matter of time before BCIs become more commonplace. "Although there are a plethora of reasons to hope for this technology, including increased work efficiency, additional multitasking ability, and ease-of-use, one of the biggest reasons to push for this technology is the light-year-jump it would bring to quality of life for those in the disabled community."

"Our medical technology has gotten to the point where we can keep people alive despite horrific war trauma, debilitating neuromuscular diseases, and life-changing accidents. But, for many with disabilities, the mind is still as alive, if not more so, than ever before. Millions of people would benefit from being able to use their minds to control computers when their bodies just don't respond."

Spohn adds, "It'd literally be the mental equivalent of throwing a rope to a drowning man."

"One of the biggest reasons to push for this technology is the light-year-jump it would bring to quality of life for those in the disabled community."

While few people are actively engaged in the task of finding electronic solutions for those with limited mobility, many indie developers have learned to appropriate the technology in interesting ways.

Michael de la Maza is part of a six-man team engaged in the creation of The Insulines, an adventure game designed to increase empathy for those suffering from diabetes. In order to ensure that the game evokes the desired emotional responses, the team is looking to make use of the Emotiv headset.

"Emotiv will allow us to classify the user's experience into only two emotional states—positive and negative. We are interested in using it because the next best thing is for the user to provide us with a verbal or written description of their emotional state and we think that will be even less accurate," Maza explains. The verbal/written description is also cumbersome for the user—it costs them time and energy and does not provide any benefit for them."

Emotiv's headset. [Credit: Emotiv]

Other projects are under way as well. Emmett Coakley, a 25-year-old working on his master's degree, created a project centered around the "development of techniques to improve realism within the field of three-dimensional avatar control." Reminiscent of NeuroSky's Adventures of Neuroboy, his project let you use telekinesis, levitate, and even create flames—all in the name of fulfilling the game's objective. Unlike Adventures of Neuroboy, however, his project made use of the Neural Impulse Actuator.

Unsurprisingly, Coakley says it wasn't easy. Precision was a problem. “If the user ever attempted to force an electrical impulse [by erratically throwing their head around], all of the sensors would spike, and that data would be relayed into the world. This would lead to the avatar exploding in a rapid series of triggered events.”

“The device isn't perfect, that's for sure. Adding in the fact that each person gives off a unique level of neural feedback, it made it rather difficult to configure the virtual world to know which impulses were authentic and which were just white noise,” Coakley notes.

However, like Spohn, he believes that it's simply a question of time. “The technology just isn't there yet. Neural gaming is an amazing concept, but these devices just don't have the same level of control provided by a keyboard or a handheld device. That said, although the technology is still in its infancy, I believe that these devices will become prevalent once they become cheaper, more accurate, and have a dedicated third-party development base.”

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