A convincing twin of Darth Vader stalks the beige cubicles of a Silicon Valley office, complete with ominous black mask, cape and light saber. But this is no chintzy Halloween costume. It's a prototype, years in the making, of a toy that incorporates brain wave-reading technology.
Behind the mask is a sensor that touches the user's forehead and reads the brain's electrical signals, then sends them to a wireless receiver inside the saber, which lights up when the user is concentrating. The player maintains focus by channeling thoughts on any fixed mental image, or thinking specifically about keeping the light sword on. When the mind wanders, the wand goes dark.
Engineers at NeuroSky Inc. have big plans for brain wave-reading toys and video games. They say the simple Darth Vader game — a relatively crude biofeedback device cloaked in gimmicky garb — portends the coming of more sophisticated devices that could revolutionize the way people play.
Technology from NeuroSky and other startups could make video games more mentally stimulating and realistic. It could even enable players to control video game characters or avatars in virtual worlds with nothing but their thoughts.
Adding biofeedback to "Tiger Woods PGA Tour," for instance, could mean that only those players who muster Zen-like concentration could nail a put. In the popular action game "Grand Theft Auto," players who become nervous or frightened would have worse aim than those who remain relaxed and focused.
NeuroSky's prototype measures a person's baseline brain-wave activity, including signals that relate to concentration, relaxation and anxiety. The technology ranks performance in each category on a scale of 1 to 100, and the numbers change as a person thinks about relaxing images, focuses intently, or gets kicked, interrupted or otherwise distracted.
While NeuroSky's headset has one electrode, Emotiv Systems Inc. has developed a gel-free headset with 18 sensors. Besides monitoring basic changes in mood and focus, Emotiv's bulkier headset detects brain waves indicating smiles, blinks, laughter, even conscious thoughts and unconscious emotions. Players could kick or punch their video game opponent — without a joystick or mouse.
"It fulfills the fantasy of telekinesis," said Tan Le, co-founder and president of San Francisco-based Emotiv.
The 30-person company hopes to begin selling a consumer headset next year, but executives would not speculate on price. A prototype hooks up to gaming consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360.
CyberLearning is already selling the SmartBrain Technologies system for the original PlayStation, PS2 and original Xbox, and it will soon work with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The EEG- and EMG-based biofeedback system costs about $600, not including the game console or video games.
Kids who play the race car video game "Gran Turismo" with the SmartBrain system can only reach maximum speed when they're focused. If attention wanes or players become impulsive or anxious, cars slow to a chug.
I'm already imagining an Avalon-style RPG.