Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Emotiv elegant, lightweight EPOC headset
Let video games read your mind with headset
By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
Tue Aug 5, 8:19 AM ET
SAN FRANCISCO - Luke Skywalker, eat your heart out.
Emotiv's elegant, lightweight EPOC headset is a piece of cutting-edge technology that grants Yoda-like telepathic powers, allowing players of computer games to move items on screen with merely their thoughts. Due for release by year's end, the $299 device will come bundled with an adventure game in which players complete tasks for an Asian sensei.
"We're hoping to help evolve the way humans interact with machines," says Tan Le, CEO of Emotiv, an Australian company with researchers in Sydney and an engineering lab here.
The EPOC is at once intuitive and complex: Slap the sleek white or black helmet on, fit the 16 brain-wave sensors in place, and you're ready to program the device. Software automatically logs in a baseline for a range of emotions (relaxed, tense) and expressions (from winks to grimaces). Then users are asked to imagine 11 cognitive actions - "lift," "push," "pull" - for a few seconds each.
Even the player's emotional state is under surveillance; EPOC is capable of ratcheting up the difficulty level if it detects the brain-wave equivalent of boredom.
A test run reveals EPOC can be difficult to learn but mesmerizing once mastered. To think "vanish" and watch a cube disappear borders on unnerving. "Telekinesis has always been one of mankind's fantasies," Le says. "After Star Wars came out, I wanted to use the Force to make my cereal box float into my hands."
The technology has its roots in decades of scientific research on brain waves. Skull caps with countless sensors intercept brain activity in a process known as electroencephalography, or EEG. Emotiv's scientists have spent five years distilling that technology into a commercial product.
"For now, we're focused on the video game application (for EPOC), but we see possibilities beyond this, such as market research or health care," Le says.
Emotiv's work could well benefit far more than just game fanatics, says Monica Fabiani, professor at the University of Illinois psychology and neuroscience program. "Often, when companies make products that are comfortable and easy to use by the public, interesting applications on the medical side" follow, she says.
Emotiv execs acknowledge that medical use of their handiwork is a long way off. "Anything like that would require approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which takes years," says Steve Sapiro, Emotiv's vice president of engineering. "But the possibility is there, if simply from a cost standpoint. Our product is in the hundreds, whereas most EEG machines cost between $50,000 and $250,000."
Some gamers aren't sold on EPOC yet. "I'm not sure it's at the point of being as precise as it would need to be" to function as a console substitute for most games, says Brian Crecente of gamer blog Kotaku.com, who had early experience with EPOC. "I don't see it being a mainstream device in this form. That said, it's certainly beyond a gimmick. Game issues aside, it's uncanny."
But that gee-whiz factor, echoing the broad success of Nintendo's Wii, may be enough to drive gamers to checkout lines, says Jamil Moledina, executive director of the Game Developers Conference, an annual gathering of game creators. "When the (item on-screen) did what I thought it to do, it was surreal," says Moledina, who concedes his learning curve was steep. "This is science-fiction stuff. (Emotiv) has jumped the first hurdle in simply making the device. Now, they have to make it work with most games. If they do, this could hit the jackpot."
And in a preview of possible future applications, EPOC's ability to both read an emotional state and transfer facial gestures - a smile, a wink - from a player to its on-screen character also makes it a natural for virtual-world games such as Second Life, says Le.
"Right now, when you want your (Second Life) avatar to grin, you type it, which is completely unnatural," Le says. "If we have it our way, EPOC will make avatars truly come to life."