What do neuroscientists–who have been using EEG for decades–think of these companies’ attempts to convert a research tool into a gaming technology? The ones I spoke with are uniformly skeptical that the devices rely on brain activity alone. (Neurosky owns up to this, while Emotiv’s president, Tan Le, insists that the telekinesis function uses only electrical signals emanating from the brain.) Gerwin Schalk, a research scientist at the Wadsworth Center in Albany, NY, is developing EEG-based systems that allow severely paralyzed people to interact with computers. He says that with his second-generation system, it takes several hours of training to control one degree of freedom of motion–what you need to lift a rock in the Emotiv video game. More extensive practice is needed to develop multidimensional control. “If you wanted to pick up signals to move a spaceship left or right, it would be much easier for a person to do it with facial expression than with brain activity,” says Schalk.
Alan Gevins, who has been studying EEG for the last 40 years, agrees. “If the sensors aren’t making good contact with the scalp, they will move slightly and generate an artifact when the head moves,” he says. “Such artifacts are often not that obvious and not easily removed algorithmically.” Emotiv declined to show us the raw EEG data collected by its device, citing proprietary concerns, so it was impossible to determine whether the headset and analysis software were truly filtering out noise and measuring brain activity consistently.
While Gevins acknowledges that for a gaming system, it doesn’t matter what kind of signals the device is using, he worries that overstating the ability of EEG to “read your mind” could damage the technology’s reputation. “They are way out on a limb with the labels they are putting on things,” he says.
Others hope that the EEG devices could have medical applications. Lesco Rogers, a pain management specialist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC, has been in talks with Neurosky about testing its device for use with stroke patients. Rogers is considering very simple uses of the technology, such as allowing disabled patients to turn on a television. “What makes the technology interesting for me is the price point,” he says.
Meanwhile, EEG’s ability to measure alertness and arousal could add an interesting new layer to video games: in an unintended display of one of the Epoc’s features, the sky glowed bright orange as Della Torre, still wearing the headset after a demonstration, argued with a skeptical scientist. But the technology still seems too limited to have the transformative impact of the Wii. It’s true that Emotiv’s and Neurosky’s devices can, on a very simple level, read your mind–and lifting that plane with the powers of concentration felt very impressive. But the novelty of the devices is likely to wear off fast, and game players expecting the ability to exert precise mind control are likely to be disappointed.
Emily Singer is TR’s biotechnology and life sciences editor.