Emotiv touts technology that can read gamers' minds

Get angry and the game might turn you virtually into the Hulk

Joystick makers take note: A California start-up is offering technology it said will allow a computer game to read a player's mind.

San Francisco-based Emotiv Systems is pushing hardware and software that, in effect, creates an interface between a computer and 100 million or so brain neurons using a specially designed headset. The combo enables a computer to detect both conscious thoughts and subconscious emotions and allows a game to react accordingly, the company said.

Emotiv last month unveiled a kit for developers that allows them to start creating games using the technology. The company is also offering online demos to explain how the technology works.

The Emotiv Development Kit comprises three different suites, each one tuned to read different characteristics of a player's brain signals and make a game react accordingly. The goal, said Emotiv President Tan Le, is to push human-computer interaction further than before. For instance, an Emotiv-enabled fantasy game could sense a player's emotions and virtually transform him into, for example, the Incredible Hulk.

"The player needs to feel the journey of the character, or it's too simplistic and isn't in line with the fantasy," said Le. "Otherwise, they're not getting the full experience."

Rather than settings of easy, medium or difficult, a game can interpret a player's mind-set and react accordingly in real time. "If we dynamically change the level of difficulty based on personal gaming experience, it's far more interesting," she said. The Emotiv applications all take data feeds from a headset equipped with special sensors capable of measuring electrical activity. The headset has its own power source and can wirelessly connect to a console or PC to interact with the game.

The first application in the development kit is called Expressiv, which reads facial expressions. By interpreting the patterns of electrical currents on the surface of the head, it can discern whether a player is smiling, winking or grimacing. In a virtual reality game, a character could detect a player's grin and ask: "Do you find something funny?" A second application, Affectiv, can read states of mind, such as whether a player is calm or excited. Depending on the answer, Affectiv can alter the game accordingly.

The third component of Emotiv's kit, Cognitiv, will allow a player to perform some limited acts of virtual telekinesis in a game. A player can use about 15 different thought-trigged manipulations to move an object, said Le. While it may not completely replace a controller, it will appeal to many game players, she said.

The Emotiv kit has gotten a thumbs up from some testers, but not all think the technology will work as planned. Shelley Batts, a neuroscience doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan and blogger who has watched some of the YouTube demonstrations, has reservations.

Emotiv has modified existing Electroencephalogram (EEG) technology, which can do rough measurements of electrical activity in the brain, she said. Emotiv has improved this by creating a headset that can read the brain activity without using a special conductive gel; it's also created a proprietary algorithm she believes helps an Emotiv-based game ignore useless information to key in on what is significant. "While at present, I'm a bit skeptical that the hype can live up to the promise, I think that this is a very exciting step in the right direction and that time is the only element that this company needs to really get this working well," said Batts.

Le said her company's gaming partners will start rolling out Emotiv-enabled games sometime next year. Ideally, a gaming company will use all three components in a game, although each can be used separately, she said.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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