Mind Control

Most inventors who promise to unveil PC games you can control with your mind are achieving that trick mainly with hype. That may not be the case with Emotiv, an Australian start-up formed by Marconi Prize-winning neuroscientist Allan Snyder, microchip designer Neil Weste and technology entrepreneurs Nam Do and Tan Le. Toward the end of 2003, these four began looking for a way to take mind control to a new level. "The communication between man and machine has always been in a conscious form," says Le. "Nonconscious communication exists only in communication amongst humans: facial expressions, body language, feelings or simply things that we may refer to as intuition. At Emotiv, we believe that in future communication between man and machines, nonconscious communication will play a significant part."

Early versions of "mind controlled" games measured how well skin conducts electricity, which can yield a crude approximation of a gamer's intentions. Later versions measured the electrical impulses generated by the brain's neurons with an EEG and interpreted the signals with a computer. They failed, though, to reflect the gamer's intentions in a satisfying way. Emotiv's breakthrough, says Le, was to differentiate between those signals that correspond to conscious thoughts and those that correspond to emotions, which allows Emotiv's device to capture a wider range of expressions, gestures and emotions. It can tell the difference between thoughts of pushing an object or lifting it and interpret emotions like excitement and calmness.

It sounds like hocus-pocus, but by mid-2005, the founders' work impressed Randy Breen, a former executive at videogame publishers Electronic Arts and LucasArts, who became the company's chief product officer, and Ed Fries, head of Excel, Word and Microsoft Game Studios, who joined the board. Breen and Fries have been trying to get game developers interested in the possibilities. A bigger challenge may be persuading consumers to don the specially designed headgear that the Emotiv device requires. When Emotiv comes out with a commercial product in 2008, will it join the ranks of Guitar Hero, Wii Sports and other games that have become big hits by virtue of their unique interfaces? "It's going to take the right kind of game, because it feels like magic," says Fries. May their wishes come true.