Neural input devices could bring thought control to hardware

Soon you'll be able to think a phone number and your phone will start dialing

Forget keyboards, touch screens, buttons or even voice commands to control your cell phone, PC or electronic games.

Soon, you may just be able to use your mind: Think about an action, such as throwing a ball, and an avatar in a game will do it.

Want to dial up your best friend? In coming years, you'll simply think the phone number, and your phone will start dialing.

It may sound like technology from 2020 or beyond, but at least two companies showed off products at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week that ship to consumers later this year.

IBM partner Emotiv Systems Inc. in San Francisco demonstrated a consumer-focused neural input device, the Emotiv EPOC headset, that allows users to control electronic games with their thoughts, expressions and emotions instead of using a game controller device.

Meanwhile, NeuroSky Inc. in San Jose recently unveiled its MindSet headset, which will communicate brainwaves wirelessly to game consoles, PCs and cell phones. A prototype model called Project Millenia -- it combines earphones with the headset to provide surround sound -- was shown at the conference.

IBM and Emotiv said they hope the brain computer interface (BCI) technology used in the Emotiv EPOC headset will eventually supplement the mouse, touch screen, keyboard and even voice commands that are now used to control PCs, handhelds and other devices.

"The use of BCI technology represents a potential breakthrough in human-machine interfaces, changing the realm of possibilities not only for games, but in the way that humans and computers interact," Paul Ledak, vice president of digital convergence at IBM, said in a statement.

The Emotiv EPOC headset goes on sale this fall for $299, or about the cost of a high-end game controller, Emotiv said yesterday. The headset was demonstrated at the conference on Tuesday; Emotiv had shown an earlier version at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.

Emotiv's headset is a wireless device with sensors that pick up electrical signals in the brain and transmit them via a 2.4-GHz wireless channel to a computer or game controller. Emotiv's technology processes the signals and can control a player's in-game character's expressions or actions.

In the January CES demonstration, a user attached to sensors was able to control the facial movements of an on-screen avatar by moving his eyes left and right, or even by thinking of a motion, such as whether to move an on-screen ball up or down or to make it spin in the air. The coordination doesn't happen automatically. An Emotiv spokeswoman said a user has to train the system to reliably interpret his conscious thoughts. Trial-and-error training can take a few minutes, she said.

About 30 different expressions, emotions and actions can be detected by the Emotiv EPOC technology, from something as basic as making a game avatar smile to more complicated game action such as making an object disappear. A gyroscope in the headset also allows a user to control a camera or cursor by making head motions.

The company also plans to open its API to help developers integrate neurotechnology into a wide range of applications.

Although other companies such as NeuroSky and EmSense Corp. are developing similar technologies, Emotiv believes its partnership with IBM puts it in the forefront of the field, the company's spokeswoman said.

NeuroSky has not announced a price yet for its MindSet headset, which is now available on a wholesale basis to resellers. The company already has existing partnerships with Sega Toys Co. in Tokyo and Musinaut in Paris, an interactive music technology maker that allows users to control the music they hear in a headset based on their thoughts and mood.

EmSense, also in San Francisco, offers technology that focuses on business uses, according to its Web site. It also makes a headset that monitors a person's neurological and biological impulses to measure the effectiveness of advertising and political speeches.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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