Game makers eager to pick your brain with neurogaming

Jun 20, 2014

For a glimpse of an evolving technology that promises to shake video gaming to its foundation, check out "Throw Trucks With Your Mind."

Unlike most video games, it doesn't rely solely on a mouse or joystick. Instead, its players also don a headset that enables them to hurl trucks or other virtual objects simply by thinking.

And that's just for starters. Advocates of so-called neurogaming say the concept in a few years will incorporate a wide array of physiological factors, from a player's heart rate and hand gestures to pupil dilation and emotions. Moreover, they envision many such games being developed to improve the health, brainpower and skills of those playing them.

"It's about integrating your whole nervous system into the gaming experience," said Zack Lynch, executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization, who organized the second annual neurograming conference in San Francisco in May. Estimating that the event drew about 550 company officials and others, he predicts the concept will take by storm within a few years.

"We're at the beginning stages of this," he said. "I'm so excited."

The electroencephalography, or EEG, headset used to toss trucks and other objects onto adversaries was made by San Jose, Calif.-based NeuroSky. It measures separate brainwave frequencies that reflect how focused the player is and how calm they are, according to Lat Ware of Emeryville, Calif., who developed the game and is the founder of Crooked Tree Studios. The game, which can be purchased at www.throwtrucks.com, costs $25, or $99 with the headset.

Ware, 29, said it's possible to move a pear or other small virtual object if the player is calm, but not focused, or vice versa. But he said both mental states are essential to flatten a foe with a hurled monster truck, which takes considerable concentration.

Although only a few neurogames have been introduced so far and their action tends to be fairly limited, the games are expected to become far more challenging - and multipurpose - as the software and related technology improves.

One concept being explored is to develop games that adjust their action according to the player's changing emotions, as measured by such factors as their facial expressions, eye movement and skin-conductance levels. Another approach is to make games that influence how the player thinks and feels.

"Video games can have impact beyond entertainment," said Adam Gazzaley, a University of California-San Francisco associate professor, during a recent forum on merging neuroscience and video games. "There is an entire field that has grown up that is exploring how games can be designed, or maybe even existing games can be used, to have an impact across many different domains."

That includes health care.

Consider Los Angeles-based Melon, which, like "Throw Trucks With Your Mind," was recently launched via the online fundraising site Kickstarter. Melon officials say their first game - which challenges players to fold origami with their mind, using NeuroSky's EEG headset - helps people "learn how to focus, relax and meditate better."

Other companies hope to use similar games to assist patients with ailments ranging from Alzheimer's disease to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

A more radical idea is to incorporate into games something called transcranial direct current stimulation, which administers a mild electrical current to the player's brain, typically using a 9-volt device that resembles a headband.

Studies have shown that tDCS, as it's commonly called, improves a person's ability to concentrate, learn and even become more creative. As a result, hundreds of people reportedly have paid nearly $250 for a tDCS headset from London-based Foc.us, hoping to improve their gaming skills. And the Air Force says its tests have demonstrated that the time it takes to train pilots can be significantly reduced by giving them transcranial stimulation while they use video simulators.

But just developing neurogames that are entertaining would be welcomed by many people, including 32-year-old Adam Garcia of Pittsburg, Calif., who works in construction and enjoys spending a few hours a week playing video games. Noting that he's never tried a neurogame, he finds the concept intriguing, assuming the product is well done.

"If you can do things to objects on the screen just by thinking about it," he said, "that would be kind of cool."

NEUROGAMING

-What is it? Video games that incorporate the player's brain waves, heartbeat, or other physiological functions into the virtual action.

-How is that done? By using such technology as EEG headsets, which record electrical activity along the player's scalp.

-What's next? Games that help players think better and learn. That includes using transcranial direct current stimulation, which administers mild electrical currents to the person's brain.

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