Thought-controlled computing no longer Star Trek fiction

When Trevor Coleman’s friend threw a Star Trek convention, he could have slapped on some pointy-ears for a costume and attended like most fans. Instead he contributed a brainwave-controlled video game straight out of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Toronto-based Interaxon had developed a system that measures brainwave activity using electrodes held in place with a rubber headband, then converts those readings into an output that can manipulate a computer. It’s a little bit different from using a mouse and keyboard.

The Star Trek convention was perfect for the technology’s first public debut, Coleman says. It just took a graphical interface made to approximate one seen in Star Trek episode The Game.

“By entering and leaving particular brain states, you can control a seat vibrator that gives them tactile feedback,” he says. “Also, the video image and the game are controlled with your mind alone.”

Interaxon demonstrated their technology at the Premier’s Innovation Awards on Tuesday. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty slipped the rubber band and electrodes onto his head and shot a few discs into a moving cylinder — the object of the game.

But the awards are meant to be about more than just fun and games, the Premier says.

 “We’re celebrating Ontarians who are at the cutting edge, who are turning ideas into products or services that will be attractive to the world,” he says. “We’re talking about creating a new foundation for a stronger economy. We’re talking about creating new jobs.”

Interaxon pitches its technology as a potent marketing tool.

What many consider only possible in science fiction can now be tapped for a company display on the trade show floor, or to become part of an entertainment experience at a theme park or night club. It’s a novel approach to experiential marketing.

“At an auto show, you could sit in a car and have that car respond to your thoughts,” Coleman says. “That’s the kind of experience we can create for companies.”

The company has demonstrated its technology at more than just a Star Trek convention. It’s been featured at the Art Gallery of Ontario and at the Ontario Science Centre. A musical application that converts individual brainwaves into music has been showcased at all-night dance parties and the Denmark-based International Museum of Computer Music.

At the awards show, a brainwave musical demonstration was given as a presentation opener. Four people sat in chairs on the stage, eyes closed, and electrodes strapped to their heads. A conductor waved her hands in front of them as ominous, atmospheric music was piped into the auditorium.

Lights projected onto the large white screen behind the brain-musicians match the rhythm of the music. It sounds like a mix of drums, woodwinds, and a synthesizer. But it’s really the brainwaves of the seated people on stage that create the music.

This technology is made possible because the brain is an electrical organ, Coleman says.

“Nerves send signals using electro-chemical impulses that when summed up, can be read outside of the skull,” he explains. “The amount of energy in certain frequency bands correlates to certain known brain state. So when you’re in an alpha band, that’s a very relaxed stat. Or there’s the beta state, which is a very focused and concentrated state.”

The Star Trek game is simple to play, although the concept is foreign. You sit in a chair that vibrates with more force as you relax more deeply – it helps to close your eyes.

Then, when you’ve really got some good alpha waves going – an on screen graph shows you when – it’s time to shoot the on-screen disc. You focus your attention quickly – clenching your jaw does the trick – and the disc fires directly into the tube. You can’t miss.

It takes about three or four minutes to get good at this. The more often you play, the better you’ll get.

“The more experience that people get with this system, the more the abstraction disappears,” Coleman says. “At first people are focusing on their brain state. But soon enough, they just make what they want to happen, happen.”

So the next time you’re at a Star Trek convention or game show, look out for people wearing rubber bands around their heads.

It’s an experience that gives a whole new meaning to “mind game.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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