Mind Control for Video Games

Video game players might soon use their thoughts instead of joysticks to control on-screen characters, if they wear a helmet released Wednesday by Emotiv Systems.

The "Project Epoc" headset looks like a bicycle racer's helmet, but instead of protecting the skull, it detects the brainwaves inside it, using technology similar to electroencephalography found in medical settings. Read more about the Project Epoc and see a photo of it in PCW's Digital World blog.

Emotiv, a privately-held startup firm in San Francisco, has applied the technology to video games with the company's first product, the Emotiv Development Kit (EDK). The kit allows game developers to attach dozens of thoughts and emotions to the actions in their virtual worlds, Emotiv said.

A game designed with EDK could allow players to move objects on the screen without touching a keyboard or joystick, make the character smile or wink when they do, or require a human player to stay calm so his character does not panic and reveal a hiding place in a stealth game.

The headset is tuned finely enough to distinguish between a player's mental commands to lift a virtual item or to push, pull or spin it, Emotiv said. That could allow gamers to experience telekinesis, moving objects with their minds instead of their muscles like Star Wars' Jedi knights.

Developers have long sought ways to let gamers interact in ways that offer more realism than simple devices such as joysticks. In November, Nintendo Co. Ltd. added physical motion to its system with the motion-sensitive Wii controller, while Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 and Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.'s PlayStation 3 use vibrating handsets.

Developing a better gaming interface can mean big money for a technology company. On March 2, Sony lost a patent-infringement lawsuit, agreeing to pay US$90.7 million to Immersion Corp. for using its vibrating "haptic" technology. Microsoft had earlier agreed to pay $26 million.

Now Emotiv's product could open a new range of options for developers.

While computer games have evolved dramatically, user interfaces have remained fairly constant, according to Emotiv Board Director Ed Fries.

Emotiv's EDK connects its headset to three pieces of software: an Expressiv application that identifies the user's facial expressions, an Affectiv application that measures players' emotional states and a Cognitiv application that detects players' conscious thoughts about lifting or rotating the objects they see.

The company has not announced pricing for the EDK, but says the headset will be available to consumers in 2008. Emotiv is marketing its technology first to gamers, and plans to adapt it in the future for medicine, security, market research, accessibility design and interactive television.

Emotiv is one of the first companies to apply EEG technology to new uses, but it will face competition from other developers in the future, one analyst said.

"This technology is obviously way too early for us to really grasp the full possibilities. However it does appear that a lot of labs are working on similar things so it will definitely come to market in some shape or form," said Ben Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies.

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