Mind controlled games. The phrase has far-reaching and fantastic implications. But whatever picture these words might paint in your imagination, the reality is very different: at once simpler and more mundane.
GamesIndustry.biz visited the headquarters of Interaxon, one of the few software developers working in the nascent field of BCI, or brain computer interface. Fifteen years ago, this sort of technology could only be found in research laboratories. It required more than 100 electrodes and several pounds of equipment to get results. Today, the same result can be achieved with a single electrode mounted on a lightweight frame, worn on the subject's head.
More importantly, this technology is now available at a price that will appeal to consumers, a development that Interaxon CEO Ariel Garten describes as a "revolution". Prior to 2009, Garten and Interaxon's only public work had been for art installations and tech demos, but affordable, consumer-grade headsets have fundamentally changed the focus of the company.
It's smart content. Your technology is now going to know something about you: it can make choices for you, it can make predictions, it can surprise youAriel Garten, Interaxon
"We were able to take what we do – the algorithms, the applications and the software that we create and deliver it to a consumer market," says Garten. "This is really the beginning of a revolution in the way we engage with our machines."
In its most common form, the way mind-controlled games work is surprisingly simple. When you focus, your brain creates beta waves; when you relax, your brain creates alpha waves; a sensor pressed onto your forehead captures the neural information and interprets it as a control signal. This relax-focus paradigm is the most popular control method in BCI.
We try a golf game where focusing raises the club, and relaxing swings for the ball. We don a pair of 3D glasses fitted with a neural sensor and manipulate an idyllic landscape scene through intense stares and deep breaths: focus makes clouds appear and snow fall, relaxation makes the sun rise from behind the hills, and, bizarrely, clenching your teeth makes the boats pitch and roll in the water, puffs of steam billowing from their chimneys - if it causes electrical activity in the brain, it can be used as an input.
"You really want to think of it as augmentation," she says. "It's smart content. Your technology is now going to know something about you: it can make choices for you, it can make predictions, it can surprise you, and it can know more than you can in some ways."
"We're looking at gaming experiences that go deeper into the self, improve on and understand your personal state."
The most compelling example of this is a series of games Interaxon is developing for children with Attention Deficit Disorder. Garten tells us that ADD sufferers have heightened levels of theta waves, a dream state, and lowered levels of beta waves, a focus state. The games help the children to exert control over what they previously saw as natural, unavoidable impulses.
"Preliminary research has shown that this technology is as effective as Ritalin in improving kids' ADD," says Garten. "And the results they get after 20 hours of play – so one hour sessions over 20 weeks – can be stable up to two years. So we're looking at a really powerful tool for helping children to improve their ADD states, while engaging in activity that they already enjoy: playing video games."
And this is only the beginning. According to Garten, the next few years will bring improved signal processing, sensors that can take more accurate readings through bone and hair, and lightweight, discreet headsets that can be worn for longer periods. Each innovation will open up new applications for the technology, and push it beyond behavioural research and one-off installations and into our daily lives.
While it's difficult to imagine a Gran Turismo being controlled purely with a BCI headset, a brief discussion with Interaxon's team reveals a number of ways the technology could be applied to game production.
A neural sensor embedded in an Xbox Live headset, for example, could provide unique play-testing data for a game like Halo 4; not just where a player was killed and with what weapon, but where they were most frustrated, when they needed some respite from the action, and which rewards gave the clearest sense of achievement.
And there is potential for gameplay, too. Natural feelings like panic, calm and anger could be monitored during play, triggering a power-up at a particularly desperate moment, or altering the tone of a conversation if the player is losing concentration.
And if that all sounds a little far-fetched, Garten believes that mainstream publishers are both aware and very interested in the future of mind-controlled games.
"Traditional game companies will have this on their roadmap for around five years down the road."