Posted on Mon, Apr. 24, 2006

 

Gamers may soon control action with thoughts


Mercury News

Someday soon, video gamers may be able to use their heads, literally, to get better scores in their games.

At least two start-ups have developed technology that monitors a player's brain waves and uses the signals to control the action in games. They hope it will enable game creators to immerse players in imaginary worlds that they can control with their thoughts instead of their hands.

San Jose's NeuroSky has been testing prototypes of its system that uses a sensor-laden headband to monitor brain waves, and then uses the signals to control the interaction in video games. They hope that such games are just the beginning of a mind-machine interface with many different applications.

``Research on brain waves is well known,'' said NeuroSky Chief Executive Stanley Yang. ``But we have worked on a way for detecting them with a low-cost technology and then interpreting what they mean. We think this will have broad applications.''

Sensors in the head gear -- whether headbands, headsets or helmets -- measure electrical activity in the brain that scientists have studied for decades. Using NeuroSky's chip technology, the system can distinguish whether a person is calm, stressed, meditative or attentive and alert. Beyond games, the system might be useful for determining whether drivers are so drowsy that they need an alarm to awaken them.

NeuroSky's chief technology officer and co-founder, Koo Hyoung Lee, is a South Korean scientist who for years studied how athletes concentrate. He formed NeuroSky in fall 2004. The company has raised seed money and is raising its first round of venture capital now.

Lee's team of researchers figured out how to detect signals with simpler sensors than the devices used to monitor coma patients in hospitals. NeuroSky is selling the components for the monitoring as well as the software for interpreting the brain signals. Its customers and partners could include makers of game peripherals as well as developers who create games.

The goal is to create game console add-ons costing less than $100. Some of the game play features can be conscious -- such as forcing someone to concentrate in order to drive a car faster or toss something at an enemy. Others can be subconscious. The game could slow down, for instance, if the sensors pick up an increase in anxiety, Lee said. The company hasn't set a timetable for the product launches of its customers.

``It's a very cool idea,'' said Dean Ku, vice president of marketing at Sunnyvale game company RedOctane. ``We are looking at applications for video games, like controlling cars or airplanes. It might take time. But there are possibilities.''

Another company, CyberLearning Technology in San Marcos, has also created a gaming controller system with a helmet that monitors brain waves and can be used to direct a game. The company tapped technology developed by NASA scientists who wanted to train pilots how to focus on their cockpit equipment. It turned the research into Smart BrainGames systems.

CyberLearning also uses electrodes that attach to a player's scalp and monitor brain activity. In a fashion similar to NeuroSky, it monitors the relative stress or calmness in a person's neural patterns and links those signals to game controls. In a racing game, for instance, players can drive at faster speeds if they concentrate on being calm. If the players becomes too nervous, the game can send feedback such as vibrations to the game controller that make it harder to drive a car.

``It's fun because it adds a new element to game play,'' says Domenic Greco, chief executive of CyberLearning and a psychologist. ``What you are thinking affects the game.''

Greco's 5-year-old company has distributed the system to doctors around the country in order to test its impact on patients with concentration disorders such as attention deficit disorder.

Both companies have met with some disbelief.

In its February issue, Scientific American wrote about the prospects for treating such disorders with brain-concentration tools dubbed ``EEG biofeedback.'' The article noted there is ``no magic formula'' for learning how to harness brain waves, but researchers continue to look for ways to treat disorders.

CyberLearning Technology is selling its system starting at $584 and is targeting ADD patients.

Aside from any medical uses, both companies hope their tools could one day be used to create true ``Jedi'' effects in games set in a Star Wars universe. The player could use mind control to lift objects in video games and toss them at enemies in ways that resemble the action in the George Lucas films.

It remains to be seen how cheaply the companies can make the systems, which include both hardware and software. They're both trying to refine their gear to make it more comfortable. And it isn't clear just how precise the control can be in comparison to the lightning-quick dexterity of gamers who use hand controls.

Asked if monitoring brain waves means that their technology can read minds, Yang said, ``We're not there yet.''

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Contact Dean Takahashi at dtakahashi@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5739.