New technology closer to harnessing mind power

From the San Francisco Chronicle, from September 6, 2009 (!) Something my brother sent me that I held onto but never actually read till now.

New technology closer to harnessing mind power

Ryan Kim, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, September 6, 2009

“May the Force be with you,” the popular refrain from the Star Wars movies, has beckoned many a sci-fi fan with its promise of mind-control powers.

But a real-world counterpart of the mystical Force has been a tantalizing concept floating outside the grasp of regular people.

That is, until now.

Brain-control interface technology is in the midst of a big coming-out party this year as it reaches the mass market for the first time in the form of a handful of games and toys.

The Force – or at least, the ability to trigger physical actions with your mind – can now be had for a couple hundred bucks.

San Jose’s NeuroSky is leading the charge with a half-dozen products, while rival Emotiv of San Francisco plans to start selling a mind-control headset in time for the holidays.

The basic technology, which has been around for decades, involves reading a wide spectrum of brain waves and isolating patterns to understand moods and psychological states.

From there, applications can be written to help understand the brain-wave profile and turn certain mental functions like heightened attention or meditation into catalysts for real-world actions.

Brain-control interface has far-reaching applications beyond entertainment, potentially transforming the way we train our attention-deprived minds to how we communicate with machines and broadcast our feelings to other people.

It also could be used to assist people with disabilities or test the efficacy of medical treatment and monitor patients.

“This is the first time the technology is really venturing out of the medical lab into the real world,” said NeuroSky CEO Stanley Yang. “This is the first time people can have brain-control interface technology as a consumer product.”

NeuroSky’s technology is working its way into gizmos like the Mindflex from Mattel, a toy due out Oct. 1 that allows you to lift a ball and send it through an obstacle course using your mind. The appropriately named Force Trainer from Uncle Milton challenges users to lift a ball using a fan activated by their thoughts.

Video game publisher First Hill Media is set to release the first of a series of online PC titles based on the Hero 108 cartoon series, which will incorporate NeuroSky’s MindSet headset.

Emotiv has plans for similar games and applications that will utilize its more complex Epoc headset, which can detect up to 30 emotions and expressions. Emotiv co-founder and president Tan Le said the company has signed up 10,000 preorders of its headset, an indication, she said, of the pent-up interest in mind-control products.

“I think people are ready for this,” Le said. “We’re not under any illusion that we’ll hit mass market immediately with this but we certainly believe this revolution will happen.”

Bulky headsets

In the past, researchers were able to get at the brain wave data only through complicated and bulky headsets with dozens of sensors that required gels to facilitate contact. Research rarely left the lab.

Companies like NeuroSky and Emotiv have been able to simplify the headset into a familiar form while whittling down the price. NeuroSky’s MindSet sells for $199 while Emotiv’s Epoc headset will sell for $299.

When combined with an open software development kit, the technology has the potential to spread quickly among outside developers who can build a new class of accessible brain-control apps.

Yang said the kit for MindSet has been downloaded more than 500 times since it became available in July, while Emotiv boasts 10,000 developers in its community.

Both companies plan to open application stores where developers can sell their mind programs, just as they do in the iPhone App Store.

“That’s the exciting part. NeuroSky has this great technology and they’ve said to the world, ‘Here it is. What can you do with it?’ ” said neuro-psychologist Joseph Graffi, CEO of NeuroCog Solutions, an Australian company building a MindSet program that helps people concentrate.

Remote monitors

Graffi said the technology can help people focus and potentially ward off the early effects of Alzheimer’s disease, or help curb the effects of addictions like smoking. It can also be used by doctors to remotely monitor the efficacy of drug doses or track the progress of a patient’s treatment.

Adriano Parrotta, founder of First Hill Media, said the challenge is to get people to buy the headset and to create more uses for it. Though his Hero 108 games don’t require the headset for play, First Hill is pushing the MindSet as a unique way to experience the games.

For example, in one of the games in development, Parrotta is looking at allowing players to detonate a bomb just by concentrating on the weapon.

“No one believes it when we tell them, but once they see it, the response is overwhelming,” Parrotta said. “The technology sells itself.”

Yang said the potential for the technology is vast. He said Toshiba is working on a visualizer that helps record the user’s state of mind. It might help athletes find the elusive “zone,” which forms at the intersection of concentration and meditation.

Or the brain-control interface can work to augment communication, allowing your online chat partner to see if their joke made you smile or got you seething.

Devices for drivers

Auto companies have come to NeuroSky to see if the technology could be used to rouse drowsy drivers or perhaps be implemented for some hands-free controls. Imagine turning up the stereo volume or turning down the air conditioning just by thinking about it.

Japanese telecommunications giant NTT Docomo has also looked at ways of disabling a cell phone when a sensor recognizes that its user is driving without a hands-free device.

It’s all possible, said Yang. It just requires fine-tuning the software and enabling further applications of the technology.

He said the brain could serve as a substitute input mechanism in place of the hand and fingers. For quadriplegic patients and people with cerebral palsy, a bio-sensor like MindSet could open up a new realm of possibilities.

“Up to now, machines only understood mechanical interfaces, but humans are physical and mental,” he said. “I firmly believe that a bio-sensor that interfaces with everything we do today will be the future.”

E-mail Ryan Kim at

This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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