Emotive neural interface at GDC is nothing really new...and it doesn't read your mind

After an “unveiling” at the Game Developers Conference this week, Emotive Systems is making a lot of waves in game industry press and it is starting to crest into the mass market media.

Here are some samples of what people are saying about “Emotive Epoc Neuroheadset”:

“It was the hottest thing on the show floor and people were shocked.” (here)

“Startup Emotiv Systems is hoping to crack the code on human-computer interaction with a unique technology, based on “unfolding” the cerebral cortex (here)

“…World’s First Brain-Controlled Video Gaming Headset”  (here)

There is more but I don’t feel like linking it all. 

The emotive technology is nothing more than a lightweight and cheap EEG (electroencephagraph) that measures electric signals in the brain. This technology, used in interactive applications and games, has been around since the early 90s. I myself had hands-on experience with at least two systems around 1995/1996. The cool one was controlling a skiier going downhill.

The technology doesn’t read your mind. Do I need to repeat that? It doesn’t read your mind. It doesn’t connect to your brain, and it has no idea what you are thinking or feeling (press materials notwithstanding). What it does do, is measure electric signals, of which there are different types, locations, and strengths, that can be assigned (think key binding in your favorite FPS) to particular inputs.

So yes, it is absolutely possible to use this tech to do basic control of a game, but not much beyond that. You have to learn basic biofeedback techniques (breathing, concentration, temperature, and brainwave *type* generation) which is fairly easy to do with a decent feedback loop and sensitive equipment.

One of the things the technology is not suited well to, is movement. That is, getting accurate signals when YOU move around. Even flicking your finger fires off electric signals in the brain, and this can confuse or overload a typical EEG…this is why when you get your brainscanned (been there, done that) you have to stay completely still. Now, you might see the Emotive guys demoing their tech and moving around while doing it…that *might* (I don’t know, I haven’t seen their stuff first hand) be indicative of sensors that aren’t that sensitive, and the massive electrical impulses generated by movement might be needed to be registered. This would actually be a good thing, particularly for living room-based games on a console that require jumping around playing air guitar.

Their ability to measure “emotions” is a little high-tech fakery as well. They aren’t reading your emotions at all, but they are measuring verious signals generated by your body that change during different emotional states. Remember mood rings? Same thing. The electrical conductivity of your skin changes based on a number of emotional and psychological factors, as does your temperature, and a gazillion other factors.

All in all, the big thing to take away here, is that the Emotiv headset is a simple EEG that works, is very cheap (finally), and can be used as a gaming peripheral. I fully expect some VC to go nuts over this and throw a lot of money at them, but I caution you…this type of technology has a very high risk of becoming nothing more than a fad…remember the nintendo virtual boy? The Emotive headset can be used as a controller for just about any game (and I mean that in the loosest sense of the word) but what it really needs is a killer app (game) designed specifically for the interface. This is the same challenge that the wii had with its unique controller. You MUST have games designed specifically for the technology. Do that, and the market will adopt it much faster and you gain a lot of ground in avoiding the pitfall of becoming a gimmick or a fad.

PS, I would suggest releasing a free or opensource SDK. Let the innovators and hackers get their grubby hands on this and let’s see what they come up with. I’d like to see some easily accessible motion tracking tech out there as well (no, not limited infrared stuff like the wii…I need 360 6dof control!).

Seriously people…the reason we don’t have flying cars, true brain interfaces, and a massive virtual universe that is directly integrated with reality is because it is so damned hard to get funding to innovate or do R&D. Everyone is too busy trying to throw billions at things like myspace, youtube, facebook, etc.

Anyway, congrats to the Emotive folks…but don’t buy the media hype.