Brain Games

Recent brain gadgets at CES fail to live up to their claims. Thought Beanie is different, built from pure science and real research.

Brain Games


Many people are eagerly awaiting the day they can influence their environment, and everyday technology, using just their brains. Gadgets that enable 'mind games' could be just around the corner.

Companies like Philips, Dreem, InteraXon, Kokoon and Neurosky manufacture headsets that claim to do just that. Some showcased at CES in Las Vegas.

Only, they don’t.

Breathless journalists have gushed about video games and even cars controlled by a person’s mind.

Only, that doesn’t really happen.

And everyone will apparently be wearing mind reading wearable kit as part of the daily lives.

Only, they aren’t … yet.

Why?

Well, part of it comes from the technology being complex and unwieldy in social use.

These headsets sense the electrical activity inside a person’s brain using a technique known as electroencephalography, or EEG. It works like this: Electrodes are placed on the surface of your head. They measure the electrical signals produced by your brain’s neurons through your scalp. Different brain activities produce different signals.

This is nothing new. EEG has actually been used as a clinical tool for more than half a century. Neurologists can identify patterns in a patient’s brainwave activity, allowing them to spot abnormalities that could warn of seizures, ADHD or other disorders.

And EEG has been used effectively to help amputees control high-tech prosthetic limbs. Patients with spinal cord injuries or ALS could also use the technology to mobilize their wheelchairs or communicate better.

EEG can’t, however, read your thoughts. Instead, it connects your brain wave patterns with corresponding actions or mental states. “If I move my right hand, and that creates a very clear signal that links to a computer command, that’s an entirely different beast than me simply wanting my character in the game to turn left and turn right. We don’t read what people are thinking,” says Katharine Noe, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic.

Current technology may be able to identify patterns that arise from thinking certain words or phrases over and over again, but EEG can’t decipher the specific words people are thinking. That requires training and practice, both for user and device.

There are some practical issues.

For starters: most of us have hair on our heads. In clinical settings, EEG electrodes must therefore be placed very delicately on the scalp in order to work properly. The oils from the skin must be wiped away first so that the electrodes can be glued to the skin. It can take 40 minutes to connect a clinical EEG to a patient but without this kind of care, poor measurements can result.

And that’s not all – EEG can be easily confused by outside signals. A lot of gadgets we use every day emit electrical activity, and that can show up on an EEG. If you’re holding a cell phone up to your ear, it will almost certainly cause interference with recording real brain wave activity. Ditto electricity cabling running through the walls or to lights.

Current commercial EEG headsets may have even bigger problems. It’s likely they often aren’t picking up mental activity at all. Instead, they could be sensing the electrical current produced by muscles in the body, heartbeats or eye movements that generate voltage EEGs can read. It makes it incredibly hard to tell if a headset is actually measuring brain waves or just a furrowed brow.

Translating lab successes to everyday use is also tricky for far more mundane (but massively important) reasons. Firstly, we’ve all got to want to be seen in headwear hosting the tech. Secondly, the likes of Apple have taught us to expect instant gratification from electronics … regardless of how technically difficult that might be.

Where’s the solution for mind games?

Well, Emotiv claims its headset can read both muscle movements and brain waves, but it’s difficult to tell which metric is being measured without knowing how the commercial headsets’ algorithms work.

While InteraXon’s Muse headset is supposedly being used in clinical trials to see if it helps cancer patients meditate, there currently aren’t any published studies validating it.

As more wearable technologies emerge that claim to quantify our biology, it’s a real let down that the current crop of commercial EEG headsets draw largely on poor science, with weak (if any) proven benefit.

Headlines exuberantly proclaiming things like “The Video Game Helmet That Can Hack Your Brain” or “Brainwave-reading headset lets you control your TV with your mind.” Sadly, they are a long way short of giving wearers anything akin to super powers in reality.

Meditation Mind Games?

For example, when InteraXon first showcased its EEG meditation headset Muse at CES, it didn’t fit people’s heads, especially those of people with thick hair.

Muse is a headset that’s meant to tell a wearer when he or she is meditating properly — but when reporters tried it out, the system repeatedly encountered errors. Before their meditation, it asked users to focus on examples of cities or languages — perhaps as a way to pick up the patterns of when his mind was at work. Then it asked the user to clear his mind. Once he was finished ‘meditating’, often the results given made no sense.

He was on a noisy showroom floor filled with other journalists loudly performing on-camera presentations next to him, but according to the headset, his mind seemed to pivot between true meditative state and diversion frequently.

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The result? It's difficult to take Muse seriously.

Lets take Emotiv Systems, which makes an EEG headset called Epoc. Even though Epoc has been used to control video game avatars and motorized skateboards, the headset isn’t marketed for any specific task – which leaves mainstream users unclear, and frankly a bit nervous, about what it's really for.

Emotiv says Epoc is for enabling research in the fields of neuropathy, entertainment, and marketing, but it's currently failing to gain widespread credibility or real market traction in any of these.

An $800 game controller?

Let's be honest, you’d need to be a fairly hardcore gaming nerd to wear it at home let alone in the street? And a wealthy too, with a single unit retailing at $799 …

According to Emotiv, Epoc’s controls work by letting users “train” Epoc by thinking of certain objects or motions over and over; which allows the headset to pick up the patterns associated with each thought.

“You can think ‘fly’ or think about something that you can recall with clarity,” says Kim Du, a spokesperson for Emotiv. “You can think about pushing, think about the color blue. The software program is looking for that specific pattern.”

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Those patterns might then be used to control video game avatars.

“There are predefined normal patterns for when you’re awake, drowsy, when you’re asleep, or engaging in activity,” says Dr. Madeline Fields, an assistant professor of neurology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Combining all that might then mean, an EEG system could prompt a video game character to slow down when moving forward on a screen if electrodes pick up brainwave patterns associated with drowsiness. The character could then stop moving if a pattern for sleep is detected.

And why can’t EEG wearables look better, be more comfortable and work more simply?Why can’t they frankly do more for the money?

Surely it's time to stop the mind games and do better!