Brain-Computer Interfaces: The video game controllers of the future

With virtual reality now looking distinctly normal, brain-computer interfaces are look set to become the futuristic tech on the gaming horizon. We discover where the technology is at now, and how it could transform the way we play in the future

When it comes to brain-computer interfaces (BCI) and their use in video games, it can be hard to separate fiction from reality. Valve legend Gabe Newell has confirmed he is researching the technology, and in the latest series of Black Mirror Charlie Brooker painted a terrifying portrayal of how BCI tech could develop. While it may seem far-fetched, however, here and now the technology is already proving its worth.

While not yet really an option for consumer gaming, BCI games are already being used for a host of different health-related projects, creating a whole new way of thinking about how we treat a variety of conditions.

But as time marches on, BCI could have a transformative impact on the world of video games.

“This technology has really commoditised recently. Before that, brain imaging wasn’t realistic unless you were willing to spend many thousands or even millions of dollars,” explains Chris Foster, a researcher at the University of Victoria, Canada. “Today we have devices like the OpenBCI, Emotiv, and the Muse which are affordable for both developers and consumers. That makes the idea of using it for a video game much more realistic.”

The healthy option

When it comes to applications for both invasive and non-invasive brain-computer interfaces, healthcare currently remains king. But what exactly this entails varies wildly by device.

Image courtesy of the US Army

On the invasive side are technologies such as Synapse, a device developed by Nexeon MedSystems that is implanted in the chest and connected to wires running into the brain. Designed to stimulate precise parts of the brain with electricity when paired with a game, it has already been used to treat conditions such as Parkinson’s.

BCI technology is a fairly common solution to the condition, but Synapse takes things a step further.

“This technology is different from the others because it allows us to record what is called local field potentials: the brain activity,” says Will Rosellini, chairman and CEO of Nexeon. “So we think that we can stimulate to alleviate, but we can also record and get a biomarker for how the device is performing.”

In order to make full use of this potential, the company is developing a software suite that will allow greater disease management for users of the device.

“So gamification of rehab, for example, is something that we’re looking at; can we make taking their medication more fun to drive compliance?” asks Rosellini.

But Synapse is not the only BCI technology that Rosellini is involved with. Through his second company, MicroTransponder, he has developed a vagus nerve stimulator, a technology that stimulates a key nerve in the neck to assist with both physical and behavioural therapies.

And once again, pairing the device with a game experience is vital to its success.

DARPA is hoping to extinguish those memories faster by giving soldiers a vagus nerve stimulator and having them play the video game Bravemind

“We are working with a program where they want to link the stimulation with a virtual reality construct, so Skip Rizzo at USC made a program called Bravemind,” explains Rosellini. “Bravemind is a virtual reality video game where you get Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam vets to be immersed in scenes that they control, and by exposing them to the videogame you can complete a delinking of the emotions with the memory, and that has been shown to be important in post-traumatic stress disorder.

“DARPA is hoping to extinguish those memories faster by giving soldiers a vagus nerve stimulator and having them play the video game Bravemind to extinguish their memories faster. So that’s a big, $8 million proposal they started last year.”

In addition, Rosellini says that the technology could be used to help rehabilitate stroke sufferers and relieve addiction to drugs such as heroin. However, the fact remains that the technology is highly invasive, meaning its use is likely to remain limited to conditions that are severely life-altering.

Interfaces without implants

While invasive BCI remains the best solution for some severe conditions, technologies are emerging that combine non-invasive brain computer interfaces with video games for more low-key therapy.

A key example of this is Harvard-incubated BrainCo’s Focus 1, a neurofeedback device that is worn like a headband to improve focus by training certain brainwave frequencies.

“The Focus 1 itself is a headband, it has two electrodes on it on the forehead and one behind the ear. It reads alpha, beta and in some of our iterations also low theta waves,” explains BrainCo game developer Jo Wylie. “It takes them, it runs them through an algorithm based on neurofeedback that we’ve developed and it outputs pretty much a very understandable, passable 0 to 100 scale that we just call the attention level.”

Image and featured image courtesy of BrainCo

There are an array of potential applications for device, which is currently being prepared for clinical trials, but at present BrainCo is focusing on developing it as a therapeutic product for children and teenagers with ADHD. The idea is that the users play games made for the device, which help them to improve their concentration and focus.

One such game that has been developed for the system is Focus Oasis, an Animal Crossing-style mobile game that focuses on providing a fun, positive experience that rewards the player for greater focus.

“You drop into this oasis, this area which only you can access and which has a collection of characters in it. So the idea is you walk around, you explore this nice rich environment and each character you meet has a different request for you. Is one character asks: can you help me do my fishing? Somebody else is like: I’m trying to get all these flowers to bloom, can you help me make all the flowers and the frogs come out?”

The idea behind this, says Wylie, is that the player sees a physical improvement in the world as they focus more; a reward for their improved concentration.

“I really didn’t want to just make more homework for the kids, so I wanted to create something that gives them a sense of this is my space and it’s just for me,” she says. “I’m doing this because it feels good and not because I’ve been sat down with it.”

Getting into games

However, while BrainCo is currently only used as a therapy device, it could also have significant potential as a new form of gaming device.

“In the long run I really, really want to make it a purely entertainment device, which is available to anyone playing any type of game, and BrainCo is slowly going there,” says Wylie.

There is definitely a horror application of this device where as you’re walking around, this device will be able to read when you are most scared

That’s not to say that the technology wouldn’t be applicable to gaming in its current state. While the Focus 1 only touches on the potential of BCI, what it does do, it does well.

“I’d love to do a racing game where you’re just racing each other with how focused you are – that could be a lot of fun!” laughs Wylie. “I could go and make it now. We have an attention level: zero is stopped, 100 is 100 miles an hour, it would be relatively easy to code, but it doesn’t fit into what we kind of want to do with the BrainCo device now at all.”

Nevertheless, there will be chances for other developers to use the technology for these types of games before long. While the device does not yet have a set date for commercial availability, the company is planning to put together an SDK that will allow third-party game developers to create compatible experiences for it. These could in theory take the form of a host of different types of game, but all will provide rewards or responses purely within the gaming experience.

“The training technique, there’s no feedback – it doesn’t buzz your head like some neural feedback devices do, it’s purely through gamification: when you’re in a good place your game rewards you,” says Wylie. “All of the game applications will help the brain, will train the brain, but in the long run we’d love to see the SDK used just as a gaming device, or as a training device.”

Some games, of course, will be better suited to the headband than others. Wylie believes walking simulators and continuous runners are most likely to be well suited to the Focus 1, but there are other genres that could be dramatically improved by the addition of the BCI device, particularly in combination with virtual reality.

“There is definitely a horror application of this device where as you’re walking around, this device will be able to read when you are most scared, so the horror game that sees that when you see spiders you become more scared, so as the game goes on you see more and more spiders, that sort of thing,” she explains.

“So horror games that can learn from you. We’ve been talking about that for a while: once we get an SDK we’re specifically going to be reaching out to horror companies because we think that this could be really, really cool.”

If that sounds a little Black Mirror for your taste, however, the technology does also allow for far more restful gaming experiences.

“Personally I’d love to make this game where you’re in a world, in VR, and just imagine you’re sat on a field and all around you as you concentrate all the flowers open,” she says. “And it’s this immersive experience where you’re literally just sat in a place or stood walking around an area, and you’re controlling it and making it light up, all the colours changing and everything happening as you focus. I think it could be a really amazing artistic image.”

The outer limits

At present, BCI devices – and particularly those that are suitable for consumers – are relatively basic. But in time they are likely to develop into far more sophisticated pieces of technology.

However, exactly how sophisticated this form of non-invasive device could become remains a matter of contention.

We’re trying to predict what are called ‘word vectors’ from an EEG signal

“I don’t think BCI – until we’ve got to a point where we’ve got things in our brains, which is not something that attracts me – we’re not going to get directional BCI where you could think ‘lights’ and the lights come on – not unless you have some pretty, pretty intense, deep-in stuff, “says Wylie.

“Honestly I might be wrong on the directional thing, but from what I’ve seen I don’t think we’re going to be able to pick up words.”

However, Foster is working on a research project that could in time to see something almost of this nature become a reality.

“We’re trying to predict what are called ‘word vectors’ from an EEG signal. The user could think of a noun, such as the word ‘cat’, and we attempt to determine information about that word such as ‘Is it alive?’ or ‘Is it a kitchen item?’ based on the EEG signals,” he says.

“It has been shown this can be done with high-end brain imaging such as fMRI, but these machines are extraordinarily expensive. We’re trying to see if this can be generalized to cheaper commodity EEG hardware.”

Foster says that he will better know whether the concept is likely to work by April, but if it does, it could be hugely impactful for the use of BCI.

“This would allow the collection of far more data and be more explorable for a lower price point,” he says. “This can help us understand how the human brain processes language and in the far future potentially make these sort of brain-computer interfaces more practical and effective.”

Nevertheless, even if non-invasive BCI devices are never able to truly detect words, Wylie believes they could provide a very clear picture of a wearer’s feelings, which in turn could be used to brilliant effect in games.

“I think the peak is going to be in emotional reactions,” she says. “Being able to tell exactly when someone is happy, is sad, is scared, all that type of thing.”

Former US presidential candidate Ralph Nader warns against over-hyping driverless cars

Former presidential candidate Ralph Nader has said that unsubstantiated claims from driverless car enthusiasts are distracting authorities from improving transport links and improving road and rail infrastructure.

In a blog post, Nader argues that the while the many advantages of a possible driverless future have been reported by the media, they have not been properly scrutinised, and the technology is draining much-needed funds that should be made available to mass transit services and the industry’s own vehicle safety upgrades.

“The mass media took the bait and over-reported each company’s sensationalised press releases, announcing breakthroughs without disclosing the underlying data,” said Nader.

“The arrogance of the algorithms, among many other variables, bypassed simple daily realties such as bustling traffic in cities like New York.”

Image courtesy of Don LaVange

Nader makes the claim that the predicted decline in car sales has led car companies to promote their high-ticket, driverless cars, which as Nader points out are already being marketed as “computers on wheels”.

However, Nader argues no explanation has been given for how autonomous vehicles would be implanted into normal people’s daily lives, and the problems of cars being hacked or requiring humans to take over haven’t been resolved.

“The industry, from Silicon Valley to Detroit, argues safety. Robotic systems do not get drunk, fall asleep at the wheel or develop poor driving skills. But computers fail often; they are often susceptible to hacking, whether by the manufacturers, dealers or deadly actors,” said Nader.

“Already, Level Three—an autonomous vehicle needing emergency replacement by the surrogate human driver—is being viewed as unworkable by specialists at MIT and elsewhere. The human driver, lulled and preoccupied, can’t take back control in time.”

Nader also makes the point in his blog post that driverless cars are diverting funding away from making cars we already have safer, more efficient and less polluting.

It is Nader’s opinion that we shouldn’t wait for what he terms a “technological will-o’-the-wisp”, and we should instead make changes to the cars we already have, as well as improving public transportation and infrastructure.

“The driverless car is bursting forth without a legal, ethical and priorities framework. Already asking for public subsidies, companies can drain much-needed funds for available mass transit services and the industry’s own vehicle safety upgrades,” said Nader.

“Why won’t we concentrate on what can be improved and expanded to get safer, efficient, less polluting mobility?”

Self-driving shopping: Autonomous grocery delivery trialled in London

The first trials of a self-driving grocery delivery service have started in Greenwich, London, as part of a wider project looking into the use of autonomous vehicles for ‘last mile’ deliveries.

An initiative between UK government and industry funded smart mobility lab the GATEway project and Ocado Technology, a part of the world’s largest online-online supermarket, the trail uses a cargo-carrying self-driving vehicle known as CargoPod. Developed by Oxbotica, the vehicle can carry 128kg of groceries at a time, as is designed to drive in areas populated by pedestrians thanks to its software system Selenium.

“Last mile delivery is a growing challenge as our cities become denser and more congested,” said Graeme Smith, CEO of Oxbotica. “In this new project we are working closely with Ocado Technology to deploy our Selenium autonomy system into a novel last-mile delivery application in Greenwich as a part of the GATEway project.”

Running over ten days, the trail will see groceries delivered to over 100 residents across the Royal Riverside Arsenal development in the borough of Greenwich. The project is the latest in a series of trials of self-driving vehicles in the borough, which have been primarily focused on their operation in areas also used by pedestrians.

“The Royal Borough of Greenwich is one of the UK’s leaders in smart city innovation and we are proud to be working alongside our partners to be at the forefront in this new age of driverless technology,” Councillor Sizwe James, cabinet member for transport, economy and smart cities at the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

“With Digital Greenwich spearheading this work forwards, we are gaining new insights into how connected and autonomous vehicles, including automated light delivery vehicles, will impact on the city and what cities need to do to capture the opportunities they can bring.”

Images courtesy of the GATEway project

The eventual goal of the project is to bring self-driving vehicles into general use in the UK.

“The GATEway project takes us another step closer to seeing self-driving vehicles on UK roads, and has the potential to reduce congestion in urban areas while reducing emissions,” said UK Business Minister Claire Perry. “Backed by government, this project firmly establishes the UK as a global centre for developing self-driving innovation.”

As part of this, there has been a strong focus on the commercial opportunities of self-driving vehicles, as evidenced by the involvement of Ocado.

“Ocado Technology is delighted to have worked in partnership with the GATEway Project to a complete a very successful grocery delivery trial using driverless vehicles. We are always looking to come up with unique, innovative solutions to the real-world challenge of delivering groceries in densely-populated urban environments,” said David Sharp, Head of 10x Technology at Ocado.

“This project is part of the on-going journey to be at the edge of what is practical and offer our Ocado Smart Platform customers new and exciting solutions for last mile deliveries.”