Demo Spring 2011: Brain Control

A computer watches me do simple math, and I'm impressed by how much it can tell about my thought processes

2 min read

I’ve tried a number of EEG brain wave devices over the years; most designed to control video games, or as simple tests of relaxation. Most didn’t exactly impress me with their potential usefulness.

I’ve even tried a version of the brain wave monitor Neurosky brought to Demo Spring 2011 this week in Palm Desert, Calif. That was the Mattel MindFlex, based on Neurosky technology, requiring me to navigate a ping pong ball through an obstacle course by varying my concentration levels; I found it more frustrating than fun.

So I didn’t have particularly high expectations when I strapped on the latest Neurosky gizmo, the $100 MindWave headset.

First on the screen—a series of math addition and subtraction problems. My job—solve them as quickly as possible. I struggled a little, confused by the positions of the number keys on the computer (“where is the 3???”) and adjusting my glasses to focus alternately between the keypad and the large screen above me; I missed a problem, then added when I should have subtracted.

After the short—less than a minute, I would guess—test, I looked at Neurosky’s report of my experience. The graph showed my concentration levels rising and falling, a dip just before the missed problem, then a big jump as I clearly amped up my efforts to make up for the mistake. Towards the end, my concentration held steady and I had completed the problems rhythmically—I was in the zone.

Wow. I could immediately see how useful this kind of information would be to a teacher—or a parent wondering why what seemed like simple homework was taking so long. This EEG monitoring peripheral no longer looks like just a novelty product.
I switched over to a shooting game (a benign shooting game—it used a bubble gun, when you hit an animal it floated up in a bubble). Concentrate to target a creature on the screen, and then, when the crosshairs stabilize, blink to fire; no hands. Very cool.

Video above: Spectrum Editor Tekla Perry tests the Neurosky MindWave.

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