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.