Shows 01.19.09

Monday mornings I'm on the air sharing more stories about how people are living better through computers. I'll tuck field notes from those shows right here. You'll also be able to dig into the archives to explore previous shows as I determine how best to share some of the highlights of the past 9 year's worth of adventures.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Game Industry Is Turning our Kids into Jedi. Will 2009 Be the Year that The Force is With You?

If your kids aspire to be a Jedi Knight, the force may be with them sooner than you think thanks to new toys introduced by Mattel, NeuroSky and Sega.


Augmentative Technologies in the Gaming Industry

Last summer I told you about a new mind-reading technology called "The Audeo" that allows people who are vocally impaired to turn their thoughts into speech. The same sort of augmentative technologies are turning those neural messages into actions that not only move things digitally within a computer game, but physically as well.

Mattel's new "Mind Flex" toy (introduced recently at the CES tradeshow) will sell for about $80 when it hits the shelves this year. The player wears a headset that picks up on neural impulses much the way an EEG medical test would, allowing them to control a fan that moves a small nerf-like ball through a mini hoops game. By concentrating on the ball the player can move it up and down. A manually turned dial is still required for side-to-side movement. (Mind Flex can be seen in action through videos here and here ). While it's an early example and just a toy, it does begin to demonstrate the possibility of more robust applications of mind-reading technologies to control things in our environment.


Mattel has a competitor in NeuroSky, a developer that has been working since 2005 to bring the use of brainwaves and eye movement to control gaming software. Teaming up with fame industry titans Sega and Square Enix they are tapping into the game market by providing a "ThinkGear" bio-sensor headset called a "MindSet" that players wear. NeuroSky plans to release a toy called "The Force Trainer" (the name giving a nod to the form of mind control made popular by the StarWars movies) for under $100 USD this fall. Like Mattel's product it is a tower that teaches kids how to levitate and release a ball using their minds. NeuroSky has also teamed up with Square Enix on the release of a thriller game named "Judecca", due out this spring, allowing players to walk through walls and kill zombies by simply thinking about it. Unlike similar games on the market today, these ones don't inspire a frenetic activity of thumbs and body, but require an almost "zen like" state in order for the technology to work. Again the device will market for under $100.

Emotive Systems is another developer hoping to get in on the brain games. A company known for it's emotive-controlled wheelchair devices, they are ready to take the plunge into the gaming market via a landscape of beautiful forests and temples where you interact by manipulating and controlling objects with your mind through their "Emotiv Epoc" mind-controlled PC gaming controller. Creatures in the game react to your facial expressions, and landscapes adapt to your mood.

Even Nasa is getting in on the game with their neurofeedback technologies in partnership with CyberLearning Technology/SmartBrain Technologies, With a focus on health, learning and performance SmartBrain plans to turn thousands of Nintendo Wii, Sony Playstation and Xbox video games, and also your favourite movies, into neurofeedback training grounds through their award-winning interactive devices.

How does this all work?

Mind-reading headsets tend to use a similar bio-sensor technology, employing "dry active sensors" that eliminate the need for contact gels (typically used in EEG medical tests). The "biofeedback caps" generally looks like audio headsets with a few extra bands, plugging into a computer jack or game controller port to interact with the software. Biofeedback devices tend to use technologies such as electromyography (EMG), to record muscle movements and twitches, and electrooculography (EOG) to measure changes in the retina. The intense concentration required to run the device is a significant shift in game playing, and will make it a more difficult sell in a market of kids accustomed to physically active gaming interaction.

Benefits and Challenges

There's another challenge for this industry, albeit one that the "cool factor" is likely to quickly overcome. It's hard to have a conversation about mind-reading technologies without including the ethical questions. Parents may not be crazy about their kids using toys that give them telekinetic powers. For some it may conjure up images of things going badly, as in the 70's Hollywood blockbuster "Carrie". The upside of such a potentially powerful technology is it's ability to improve lives, returning speech and mobility to people who have either lost it, or who have never had it. Stephen Hawking is a great example of how empowering augmentative communication technologies can be. People with degenerative muscle conditions such as Lou Gehrig's Disease, can look forward to a renewed mobility and control over their environments. Parents of children with autism and attention deficit disorder are also applying these types of technologies to improve recall and focus.

When I discussed mind-reading technologies last fall I talked about the cutting edge use of such applications that have already evolved in the military and in healthcare. It's going to be interesting to follow the progress that similar technologies make in the gaming industry as our kids become the next people to apply the rule of "mind over matter" in a very real way, since 2009 is the release target for many of the biggest developers.

What's on Deck?

This is something I'll continue to keep my eye on and report back on as interesting new applications evolve that have the potential to make our lives better along the way.

Stay tuned for more ways to plug in this winter …


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