Loser: Mental Block

Emotiv says its game controller works at the speed of thought, but it doesn’t


This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s SPECIAL REPORT: WINNERS & LOSERS 2009, The Year’s Best and Worst of Technology.

Controlling objects with just your thoughts has been a dream of sci-fi from “Star Trek” to Star Wars, but in the past few years that dream has inched closer to reality. Brain-computer interfaces have allowed wheelchair-bound quadriplegics to move cursors on screens and monkeys to control robot arms.

Now a San Francisco–based company called Emotiv Systems is trying to bring the technology to PC game applications. It had planned to release its Epoc headset, a plastic frame dotted with 16 electrodes, in time for Christmas, but now the company says only that it’ll put the thing on sale “soon,” for about US $300.

How the Epoc works isn’t entirely clear. The company says that it relies exclusively on brain waves, but independent observers say that it might instead be picking up other sorts of signals. In either case, the headset couldn’t let you manipulate fast-moving characters in Grand Theft Auto just by thinking about it.

Such a hair-trigger response would require some pretty significant breakthroughs in electroencephalography (EEG). Researchers have been using this form of brain-wave monitoring since the 1920s, largely because it is simple and cheap to operate. Still, scalp EEG sensors like Emotiv’s are far less accurate than experimental setups that insert electrodes into the brain through holes drilled in the skull, as was done with the monkeys who were taught to control robot arms.

Worse, EEG signals are weak, noisy, and slow. “Video gamers spend lots of money buying fast computers and fast graphics cards,” says IEEE Fellow Kenneth Foster, a bioengineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has long studied the medical applications of EEG. ”Why would they then hook themselves up to a computer that allows them to do the equivalent of typing one or two words a minute with a 50 percent error rate?”

The mainstream media has hyped the technology with breathless headlines like “Next-Gen Vidgame Gear Reads Minds” (Variety) and “Control GTA With the Power of Your Mind” (T3.com). But that’s not how brain-computer interfaces work.

“It’s not that someone’s thinking about doing something and the computer records the person’s thoughts,” said Foster. “It’s just that through a training sequence, you can be taught how to fire those neurons near where the electrode is.”

Think of it this way: learning to steer a cursor with EEG is like learning to wiggle your ears—it’s not done well, but it’s amazing that it is done at all.

Or maybe it isn’t being done. Professor Klaus-Robert Müller, cohead of the Berlin Brain Computer Interface at Berlin Technical University, surmises that the headset senses not EEG per se but rather the potentials generated by contracting muscles, like those in the gamer’s clenching jaw or moving eyes.

“These signals are at least 10 to 100 times stronger than EEG, so if the Emotiv uses facial expressions for controlling computer games, then great,” Müller says. “But if they say it’s using thoughts, then I object. If you have a small car and you put a Mercedes label on it, that doesn’t make it a Mercedes.”

But Tan Le, Emotiv’s cofounder and president, insists that the Epoc is a pure EEG device. “There are no additional biofeedback measures used by the headset,” she says. She also maintains that Emotiv’s patented algorithms have minimized lag. “The response time after training is virtually instantaneous.”

She adds that the Epoc can be used with just about any video game now on the market, including the fast-paced ones. “A direction like ’push’ can be assigned to ’drive’ in a preexisting game. ’Rotate right or left’ can be assigned to turning right or left,” she said. “The user can indeed think ’lift,’ and the rock will lift.”

Non-EEG biofeedback devices have been around for a long time. Atari’s MindLink headband, launched in 1984 to work with the then-popular Atari 2600 console, actually had nothing to do with brain waves, but it did read muscle motions in the user’s forehead. In 1998, a Nintendo-compatible game called Bio Tetris let users influence play by adjusting their heart rates. Likewise, the Journey to Wild Divine system, launched in 2003, monitors heart rate and skin conductance via finger-mounted sensors and uses this data in a variety of relaxation games. And OCZ Technology’s Neural Impulse Actuator, an Epoc-like headset launched earlier this year, modestly allows you to “play games using biosignals”—not thoughts.

To be sure, in the lab EEG readings have proved robust enough to allow people to play rudimentary versions of games like Pac-Man and Pong and to navigate though Google Earth. In BrainBal0, a game launched by Sweden’s Interactive Institute in 2000, two players try to move a ball by achieving a certain brain state, thereby “out-relaxing” the opponent.

You could argue, therefore, that Emotiv is doing us all a service by making an improvement—even just an incremental one—in a new kind of input control, much as Nintendo’s Wii did last year, with its motion-sensing wands. And games specifically designed to take advantage of the biofeedback of Emotiv-like systems could lead to new gaming genres.

As Anton Nijholt, a professor of computer science at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands, and manager of an interdisciplinary consortium called BrainGain, puts it: “Hard-core EEG researchers are negative about Emotiv, because they say it doesn’t use EEG-measured activity only. For a gamer, the answer to this is, ‘So what?’ As long as there is an interesting game, then who cares that part of the activity measured is coming from, for example, muscle contractions?”

You could also argue that the technology has legs. If such brain-computer interfaces work in games, they can also help rehabilitate disabled patients and perhaps monitor skilled workers, for example, by predicting when a pilot or a crane operator is in danger of losing concentration. Tan Le says Emotiv might look at applications in market research and advertising.

“If Emotiv has a technology where they can measure EEG and use it for gaming, that would be great,” Müller says. “So far I haven’t seen any scientific evidence, any studies, or any convincing demo. But I would be very happy if they have something that’s beautiful and that works.”

But a goal is one thing, an achievement quite another. “You can do a lot better with sensors that measure eye motion or things of this sort,” says Penn’s Foster. “Maybe in the long run we’ll be able to have jet pilots control their jets by brain-wave activity, but it’s a long way from now. It’s an interesting technology, and there’s a huge amount of research being done on this, but as far as any kind of practical gaming use, it just isn’t there.”

So why plunk down hundreds of dollars for a device that does badly what can already be done well—by a finger on a joystick?

For more articles, go to Winners & Losers 2009 Special Report.

About the Author

DOUGLAS HEINGARTNER wrote about Emotiv’s new game controller. The gadget will supposedly let you play video games with just your thoughts—except that it doesn’t. “The idea itself isn’t dumb, and one day it could be a great thing. It’s just premature,” says Heingartner. A first-time contributor to IEEE Spectrum, Heingartner has written for The New York Times, Wired, and The Economist.

Snapshot: Thinking Cap

Loser: Interfaces

Goal: To develop a brain-machine interface for gamers.

Why: it’s a loser The brain-wave control system is hard to master and slow on the draw.

Who: Emotiv Systems; investors include Technology Venture Partners, Epicure Capital Partners, and the Australian Federal Government

Where: San Francisco

Staff: Info not available

Budget: US $6.3 million raised so far

When: Originally Christmas 2008; now unspecified