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David Zax

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This Is Your Brain on iPhone

A series of apps use your brain waves to power them. Welcome to the era of DIY EEG.

  • May 3, 2011

The Los Angeles Times reports that a developer from Iceland, MindGames, has put out two apps in the Apple App Store that rely on the user’s brain activity. In the most recent game, W.I.L.D., which was released last month, gamers perform a variety of tasks–they wander through dreamlike landscapes, extinguish fires, and even (with an apparent nod to The Matrix) bend spoons.

Prior to W.I.L.D., MindGames had put out a game called Tug of Mind. The game sounds like a cheeky joke, but is actually being billed as a relaxation tool: users upload a headshot (“of an ex-boyfriend, say, or a mother-in-law,” helpfully suggests the Times), and the photo morphs into a devilish looking 3-D avatar. The avatar hurls curses at you–using any pre-recorded message of your choosing–and the challenge becomes to soothe the avatar by remaining calm yourself.

Each game runs $4.99 in the App Store, but there’s one catch: you’ll also need to buy a brain wave-reading headset, which tend to run something on the order of $100. Companies like PLX and Neurosky offer such devices.

The technology is, at heart, very similar to electroencephalograph, or EEG, machines that doctors have used to diagnose neurological disorders for years. Users report a sense of disbelief when they find that apps or games can, with the help of a little headset, essentially read their minds. “I thought in no way is that going to work,” Leslee Lukosh told the Times about a game from Mattel called MindFlex. But it did work–all too well, since her whole family got addicted. “My boys couldn’t stop playing with it…and then none of us could stop playing it.”

Though it has a great allure, some onlookers are skeptical. As one biomedical engineering professor pointed out to the Times, we’ve gone through waves of interest in similar technologies–wave of interest that later died out. “You could compare it to the biofeedback fad 30 years ago,” Gerald Loeb was quoted as saying. “It’s getting its 15 minutes of fame, but eventually people will get more realistic about what its limitations are.”

He has a point. Though whether or not these iPhone EEG systems have inherent limitations probably isn’t the central issue here. What will really make a game or app flourish is its content, not the tools used to activate it. Mind-controlled games will take off only when the games are well designed–not simply because they involve a neat trick.

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