Head’s On With Emotiv

Imagine for a moment that you’re playing Assassin’s Creed, running across rooftops, but this time, when the time comes to leap into the air, all you have to do is think about lifting yourself up. Or, when you’re having a conversation in Mass Effect and want to cast a menacing look at the person you are speaking to, simply make the expression yourself. Sounds pretty farfetched doesn’t it? Well thanks to the people at Emotiv, gameplay scenarios like these are becoming a reality, and will soon be available to the public.

During last month’s annual Game Developer’s Conference, TGR stopped by Emotiv’s booth to talk to the people behind this interesting technology and to even try it out for ourselves. The method in which this thought processing technology is given to the user is through the EEG cap, which is composed of a number of sensors that monitor electrical activity within the scalp generated by the brain, as well as sensing movements from facial muscles. Emotiv had a number of stations set up that were demoing the technology, and we were eventually able to grab a seat and experience it ourselves.

When using Emotiv for the first time one cannot simply jump in and start playing, but must first set the thought sensing headset to be in tune your own mental activity. These tests involve relaxing your mind as the software adjusts to your thoughts and making different facial expressions, such as blinking or smiling, which are reflected in an onscreen avatar. You are also given a small floating box, which can be moved in a number of directions. As we were performing these tasks, the Emotiv crew adjusted the headset until it was properly adjusted to our own mind.

The retail version of the Emotiv headset.

In order for a thought to be processed, it is necessary to hold it for about six seconds. We were told that the time required was originally ten and that the team had gone through a lot of hard work to shave off those four seconds. So after Emotiv became properly acquainted with our brains, the demonstrator loaded up a demo level of a game that took advantage of the Emotiv technology and used an Xbox 360 controller to move around the environment.

Although developers do have access to Emotiv development kits, there are currently no titles on the market that take advantage of the product, which is why when you purchase Emotiv, a full game will also be included. We weren’t told all that much about the title, but the demo appeared to take place in an oriental fantasy setting, where your character is undergoing a kind of spiritual training that focuses on manipulation of objects with telekinesis. We were instructed by a wise monk to perform various tasks such as lifting rocks, assembling planks on a bridge or pulling at a tree. These were all accomplished by merely thinking about pulling or lifting, and the thought would then lead to a corresponding action onscreen. A few of us were unable to do the task of bending a tree, which would seem like a pretty simple test after being instructed to move a mountain, but perhaps this was due to a bug in the demo and not any feeble mindedness of our own.

It’s pretty difficult to put into words what it feels like to use the Emotiv headset. While you are required to concentrate for a certain amount of time, it’s important not to think too hard. The efficiency of the function depends on the clarity of the thought, so don’t concentrate on lifting as if you were competing in a strong man competition. Instead, it is necessary to enter a relaxed state, and only make calm mental gestures to allow the objects on screen to be moved. This sounds easy but it can be a little difficult to adjust to, given that you have to think about something like lifting, without actually doing it.

The final product is set for release this December for the price of $299, which despite the intriguing technology is quite steep, especially since there aren’t really any games currently on the market that take advantage of it. This could always change, and we were quick to ask the folks at Emotiv if they had any wishes to integrate the technology with the upcoming Star Wars game The Force Unleashed, since there is really no better sales pitch for Emotiv than the Force itself. While they did share our enthusiasm to applying the technology to the Star Wars Universe, there were unfortunately no plans for such a deal.

Emotiv CEO Nam Do

Besides Star Wars fanboy wishes, there are other ventures that Emotiv has been asked to embark upon, such as the application of this technology to the disabled. “A lot of people ask us why you don’t provide this to the disabled market,” said Emotiv CEO Nam Do. “I said yes, we would love to, but then the system is going to cost $40,000 for a unit. By achieving critical mass with the game industry you can drive it down to a consumer price point of $299, right? Then all the disabled people out there can start getting it for a very affordable price.” Putting the technology into gaming in order to drive down the price is of course a noble endeavor on the behalf of disabled individuals, but it’s worth noting that the gaming applications of the technology could also create avenues for the disabled to get into videogames themselves.

Although there is the question of whether or not Emotiv is ready to be practically integrated into gaming market, it’s apparent that the team definitely has something important on their hands, or should we say heads. Besides having the ability to think about certain movements, there is a subconscious level to Emotiv, such as the music in the game changing based on the player’s mood. Nam Do discussed this advancement for interaction with technology in general saying: “You look at man/machine communication, it has always been in a conscious form. Communication between us is a lot more interesting because we have subconscious communication. We have body language. We have facial expression. We have feelings and emotion. So that’s our vision for the next generation of man/machine to be like that.”

This more intimate interaction between players and games could end up being a very large step forward for emotional involvement in games, instead of just getting teary eyed when you see those adorable yet sad little sisters in BioShock. One potential difficulty is that passive interaction differs greatly from conscious, when it comes to the already high state of mental alertness needed when playing a videogame. It remains to be seen if gamers will be able to balance hitting buttons and using voluntary thoughts at the same time, or if these thought driven games will have to exist as separate genres. While it can be endlessly debated if the technology is ready to invade the gaming market, there is no denying the potential of Emotiv’s applications for future game design and the way we interact with games.

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