Every Sylvester Stallone fan knows that Rocky Balboa wins the final match against Ivan Drago in the classic 1985 film, Rocky IV. But if you were watching the movie while wearing a MindWave headset, the bout could go either way. Concentrate hard enough on the fight scene, and Rocky knocks out Drago. Lose focus, the victory goes to the ruthless Russian.
MindWave is a new device that literally reads minds. Developed by NeuroSky, a privately held company in San Jose, Calif., the headset features an electrode that rests on the forehead and detects the miniscule electrical impulses generated inside the brain as it experiences thoughts and emotions. Those brain waves are relayed via a radio signal to a computer, where they're interpreted by specialized software. "My wife and daughter love Avatar," says NeuroSky's chief executive officer, Stanley Yang. (SPOILER ALERT) "Every time they watched it they said, 'I wish Sigourney Weaver had lived.' That would be a fun experience if you could see it actually happen because you wished it."
Though James Cameron hasn't come calling yet, curious cinephiles can soon test-drive a MindWave: On Nov. 11, NeuroSky will start selling a $99 kit for use at home. The package will include a headset and a CD-ROM with a brief training program and a short sample video produced by Treite, a London studio. Treite is producing several more short films for MindWave that will be available for download, but the library will be limited for the foreseeable future. "You have to take baby steps first," says Yang.
NeuroSky's technology has been used since mid-2009 in toys like Mattel's (MAT) Mindflex and Uncle Milton's Star Wars Force Trainer, both of which let kids mentally manipulate a small ball while it floats on a cushion of air. Medical researchers are experimenting with similar systems to allow disabled patients to control wheelchairs, prosthetics, and computers with their thoughts.
When NeuroSky demonstrated the MindWave system for a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter, the Treite videos weren't ready, so the company reedited old films, including Rocky IV, to create multiple endings. In a pivotal scene from the 1994 hit-man thriller The Professional, one of the heroes aims her sniper rifle at a bad guy. The viewer ensures a kill shot by staying relaxed, the ideal mind state for steady hands and accurate shooting. Too much intensity, and the good guy misses.
Yang's aspiration is for movie studios to produce original films tailored for the technology. Ultimately, he hopes, theaters will be able to read the minds of an entire audience, whose thoughts would influence the feature film in progress. Getting to that point is a challenge, in part because theaters would need to purchase headsets and digital projectors capable of picking up radio signals. And, of course, studios would have to film multiple story lines and endings, says Nathan Mayfield, co-founder of Hoodlum, a production company that creates interactive games and videos. "You're halving your value in some ways" by creating two versions of the same show or movie, he says.
David Westendorf, NeuroSky's vice-president for marketing, admits that it's a long road to Hollywood success, and it will take at least two years to get a feature film into theaters. "You have to evangelize," he says, "and get the right producers and have the right spitball sessions."
The bottom line: NeuroSky is trying to bring brain-scanning technology to Hollywood in hopes that studios will create movies with multiple endings.