GDC 07: Project Epoc brings mind control to games

Emotiv Systems introduces new helmet that could allow gamers to leave behind joysticks and buttons in favor of thoughts and emotions.

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Emotiv Systems today unveiled a brain/computer interface system with a helmet and software applications at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. The Project Epoc system can move objects based on a gamer's thoughts, reflect facial expressions, and respond to the excitement or calm the gamer mentally exerts, the company said.

Sensors in the helmet pick up on electric signals in the brain. The system software analyzes the signals emitted by the brain and then wirelessly relays what it detects to a receiver. The receiver is plugged into the USB port of a game console or PC, according to Randy Breen, Emotiv's chief product officer.

As with handwriting or voice recognition, the machine itself has a learning curve, improving as it better understands what the player is thinking, but there is also a skill level involving visualization on the part of the gamer.

Anecdotally, the system seems to work best with children and others open to believing in their capability, according to Breen. It seems that gamers who believe in their ability to manipulate the virtual world with their brain--the kind of people who are skilled at using their imagination, in other words--are better at using the device.

"The detection works best when you think about that action in a particular way, repeating that thought pattern," Breen said.

"We have had a number of kids try the equipment, and they often get the best results right away," Breen said. "Part of that is because the kid doesn't have the same kind of barriers as an adult does. Lots of kids can fantasize about moving a cup and believe it."

Adults, on the other hand, are more definitive in their thinking and thus have a barrier to believing that they can do something out of the ordinary, Breen said.

While almost anyone can do at least one action with the device, Breen said some adults require practice to master up to three simultaneous actions.

The helmet shown at the show is only a prototype to demonstrate to game developers what can be done with the technology. While Emotiv is not yet ready to announce any partnerships, Breen did say the product will be coming to market in 2008.

In conjunction with Project Epoc's debut, the company launched a kit for game developers Wednesday. Emotiv also announced that it is developing its technology for use in other industries, including medicine, security, market research, and interactive television.

Emotiv, which was founded in 2003, has offices both in Sydney, Australia, and San Francisco. The company counts among its investors the Australian government. One of its four cofounders is Allan Snyder, director of The Centre for the Mind, a joint venture of the Australian National University and the University of Sydney. Steven Duvall, the director of technology for Intel Capital's International Sector, serves as an adviser to the company.

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