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 brainwave-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 brainwave-reading toys and video games. They say the simple Darth Vader game – a relatively crude bio-feedback 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 bio-feedback 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 brainwave 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.
The technology is similar to more sensitive, expensive equipment that athletes use to achieve peak performance.
Koo Hyoung Lee, a NeuroSky co-founder from South Korea, used bio-feedback to improve concentration and relaxation techniques for members of his country s Olympic archery team.
Most physical games are really mental games, said Lee, also chief technology officer at San Jose-based NeuroSky, a company of 12 employees that was founded in 1999. You must maintain attention at very high levels to succeed. This technology makes toys and video games more lifelike. Boosters say toys with even the most basic brainwave-reading technology – scheduled to debut later this year – could boost mental focus and help kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and mood disorders.
But scientific research is scant. Even if the devices work as promised, some question whether people who use bio-feedback devices will be able to replicate their relaxed or focused states in real life, when they re not attached to equipment in front of their television or computer.
Elkhonon Goldberg, clinical professor of neurology at New York University, said the toys might catch on in a society obsessed with optimizing performance; but he was skeptical they d reduce the severity of major behavioral disorders.
These techniques are used usually in clinical contexts. The gaming companies are trying to push the envelope, said Goldberg, author of The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older.
You can use computers to improve the cognitive abilities, but it s an art. It s also unclear whether consumers, particularly American kids, want mentally taxing games.
It s hard to tell whether playing games with bio-feedback is more fun – the company executives say that, but I don t know if I believe them, said Ben Sawyer, director of the Games for Health Project, a division of the Serious Games Initiative. The think tank focuses in part on how to make computer games more educational, not merely hobbies for kids with dextrous thumbs.
The basis of many brainwave-reading games is electroencephalography, or EEG, the measurement of the brain s electrical activity through electrodes placed on the scalp. EEG has been a mainstay of psychiatry for decades.
An EEG headset in a research hospital may have 100 or more electrodes that are attached to the scalp with a conductive gel. It could cost tens of thousands of dollars. But the price and size of EEG hardware is shrinking.
NeuroSky s dry-active sensors don t require gel, are the size of a thumbnail, and could be put into a headset that retails for as little as $20, said NeuroSky CEO Stanley Yang.
Yang is secretive about his company s product lineup because of a nondisclosure agreement with the manufacturer.
But he said an international toy manufacturer plans to unveil an inexpensive gizmo with an embedded NeuroSky biosensor at the Japan Toy Association s trade show in late June. A US version is scheduled to debut at the American International Fall Toy Show in October.
Whatever we sell, it will work on 100 percent or almost 100 percent of people out there, no matter what the condition, temperature, [whether you are] indoors or outdoors, Yang said.
On the Net: NeuroSky Inc.: http://www.neurosky.com Emotiv Systems Inc.: http://www.emotiv.com CyberLearning Technology LLC: http://www.smartbraingames.com