Emotiv's New Mind-Control Headset for PCs

Its wireless sensors help users run some programs with their thoughts

More and more these days, we rely on computers for play as well as work. Once in a great while, there's a new interface that changes how we interact with these machines—the touch screen on Apple's (AAPL) iPhone or the motion-sensing controller on the Nintendo Wii. But for the most part, we still rely on keyboards, mice, and joysticks.

What if you could simply think about an action, and the computer would respond? I recently sat down with executives at a San Francisco startup called Emotiv Systems, which has spent the last half-decade researching so-called brain-computer interfaces. Emotiv is currently fine-tuning a mind-reading headset called the Epoc, which should ship late this year. The $299 device purports to eavesdrop on your thoughts and translate them into computer instructions, so you can play a game or arrange photos without using your hands or speaking words.

To pull this off, Emotiv uses electroencephalography, or EEG. The technology is just like what you find in any hospital, but while doctors typically apply gel to a patient's scalp and then attach the sensors that read the brain's faint electrical signals, the Epoc "neuroheadset" has 16 sensors embedded in its crossbars that communicate wirelessly with your PC. There are no messy smears or tangles of wires. But in order to get correct readings, the sensors must make just the right contact with your scalp, which can take a fair amount of fiddling. And once the headset is in place, you have to be careful not to move around too much or the sensors will slip, preventing the computer from getting a clear signal.

Perfect Test Run

Here's how it works: If you think about lifting a heavy object, neurons in your brain fire in a particular pattern. Push a door, and it's a different pattern—and the headset can tell the difference. Since no two individuals generate exactly the same patterns, Emotiv bundles the headset with a fantasy game that includes practice exercises to tune the device to each user's unique thought processes. After that, you can raise a boulder by thinking "lift," or bend a tree by thinking "pull." Some neurologists question whether most users have the mental agility to complete the training; Emotiv says anyone can master it.

When I tried it out, the headset performed perfectly. In one of the training sequences, I had to imagine a cube and then will it to disappear. After a little practice, I was able to cause a cube on the computer screen to wink in and out of existence just by thinking of it. (During training, Emotiv suggests you supplement the thought exercises with hand movements that help the software figure out what you're trying to do.)

The sensors in the headset also respond to certain facial expressions, such as anger or delight, which can be transferred to characters displayed on the screen. What's more, certain emotions produce characteristic electrical patterns—or so Emotiv tells us. If you can summon up aggressive thoughts, the software will respond with certain actions in the game. Here, too, I seem to have a knack—maybe it's years of dealing with editors. I was able to chase away some flying wraithlike creatures just by thinking agitated, evil thoughts.

Other features of the software reminded me of those old mood rings that supposedly show whether you are happy or sad. Once your "mapping profile" is done, Emotiv says, a feature called EmoKey will be able to conjure up music or pictures that correspond to your moods. I never quite made it to that stage.

Emotiv and a rival Silicon Valley company, NeuroSky, initially are targeting the entertainment market. But both startups say they're in touch with companies in other industries, including manufacturers of TVs, medical devices, and automobiles. I'm not ready to drive a car using one of these gizmos. But if one of them can make my interactions with my PC more amicable, I'm all for it.

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