Playing head games

Controlling objects with one’s mind is a common theme in science-fiction lore. Luke Skywalker stands on one hand while moving rocks around, Neo stops bullets mid-flight and Charlie (played by Drew Barrymore) displays pyrokinesis in Firestarter. It has always been the dreams of Star Wars geeks and fantasy dorks world-wide, but it has never been an attainable goal…until recently.
In 2008, OCZ Technology, a computer hardware developer came out with a product named the NIA (Neural Impulse Actuator). It was advertised as a device to reduce the reaction time between thought in one’s brain and action on screen in-game. As it turned out, the NIA did not actually use brainwaves to accomplish this. A series of sensors on a headband read minute muscle movements in the head. It was an admirable try, but it did not quite live up to expectations. Mind Flex Duel, a game from Mattel, worked on the same principle. The problem, up to this point, has always been the step of translating what the electrical signals from the brain mean, as illustrated in the picture below:
This image was taken from a demonstration performed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (the Oxford of the Ivy League) by Gerwin Schalk, a researcher from the Wadsworth Center. It is meant to be a representation of the amount of information processed by the brain in a short time (through numerous relatively simple processes), and the amount of information processed by a computer, in roughly the same amount of time (though with fewer active processes). The thin bar at the bottom represents the information allowed by standard human-machine interfaces (controllers, for example). The researchers at the Wadsworth Center have taken patients with preexisting electrodes in their brains (due to necessary medical procedures) and used the neurological data they gathered to sift through some of the complexities of brain noise. Then, they created a system for interpreting thoughts as basic video game inputs. If you have the time, you should watch the video (I would skip to the 10minute mark). It is a long, but VERY informative video about a branch of scientific research that will only become more significant in the coming years.
In this (much shorter) clip from a study done at Berkeley, a brain’s interpretation of scenes are shown alongside the video being viewed by the patient. By using MRI machines while the subjects watched videos, the researchers created a database of what visual information looks like as it is being processed by the brain. Using that code, they then showed the subjects new information and decoded their brain information into data.
These two studies, while ground-breaking, have a long way to go until they are applicable to everyday life. This might take some excitement and amazement away from the Kinect, but I would rather not have pins and needles stuck in my brain, just so I can shoot a zombie that is trying to eat my gray matter. Anyone disagree? I didn’t think so.

Great vibrations

This week, I wanted to post something different from my previous posts to write about. I feel I’ve been ignoring the “gadget” section of the site a bit too much.  While searching around, I found the normal camera, cell phone (a NEW cell phone!?!?!  REALLY!?!?!?  HOW EXCITING!!!) and game reviews, but nothing that really caught my eye or ear. Until I ran into something that didn’t have to, this.

ViviTouch technology, developed by SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute) and commercialized by Artificial Muscle Inc., EAP (electroactive polymers) technology is now being used in a multitude of ways. Simply put, a piece of polymer film is placed between two electrodes. When a charge is applied to those electrodes, the film contracts. It gets flatter and expands in area. When done at high speed, it puts off vibrations. If this is all Greek to you, watch the video below, brought to you by the fine people at Vivitouch.

So, why should you care about this and how does it apply to your life? Well, if you’re an avid gamer, much like myself, this could be the Rumble Pak of this decade. It’s being developed for use with game controllers and peripherals. Imagine if you could tell who was calling you based on the way your phone vibrated.  With a more sophisticated and compact vibration component, it’s entirely possible. Its been adapted for use on smartphones as well as tablets. Because there is no motor to spin weights, as with existing vibration technologies, it takes less power, which always comes at a premium with newer phones. Mophie currently has an add-on product out for the iPod touch that uses Vivitouch technology.

Not only good for gaming, EAP is also being researched for use in the fields of medicine, optics, robotics and energy. It’s already being used in remote controls, appliances, and vehicle control panels. It’s good to see that American ingenuity can drive us to reevaluate standard features and do something new with them. In the end, Vivitouch is far from Earth shaking, but we’ll all be feeling the effects in years to come.


Who is in control?

In the days of arcades on the beach, and Pong, game controllers had about as much complexity as Velcro shoes. Joysticks were one of the earliest controllers out there, their appeal being their versatility. They worked very well with a multitude of games. This was the case with the majority of early inputs. But there were some out there that had the insight to make use of game specific peripherals, like the light gun, steering wheel, and Power Pad.

As time progressed and the popularity of games increased, the precision and specialized inputs did as well. Games were moving from the arcade to the home. When the NES first launched, one of the premium packages included the Zapper, R.O.B., and a controller. By the time SNES and the Sega Genesis were launched, no peripheral controllers were offered in the packages. They were becoming more specialized, the Dreamcast Fishing Controller for example. As flight simulators gained popularity in the 1990s, so did the need for more extensive joysticks. Theold-school ones were no longer complex enough due to the rise in 3D gaming. By the turn of the century, the Dance Dance Revolution franchise became popular and brought with it the dance pad. Then came an explosion of peripherals with the release of the Wii and the hugely popular Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises.

The progression of the gaming peripherals brought things we would normally do outside, into our homes. Running track, fishing, hunting, driving a race car and flying a plane can now all be done from the comforts of your living room. Now, some interesting new simulations are being made that incorporate peripherals in new ways.

These two examples are bringing the game to a whole new level. For a man, being able to feel what it’s like to be pregnant is a brand-new and interesting experience that could help us be more understanding of our spouses. It could possibly deter young women from getting pregnant before they’re ready. And who doesn’t like the idea of a video game built into a urinal? It’s much better than just staring at a wall. Sorry ladies, nothing has been developed yet for stalls.