By Brian Crecente
Mind-control, it turns out, isn't as easy as it looks.
After spending half-an-hour watching an Emotive guy levitate rocks, pull down trees and make object vanish with little more than the power of his mind, it was my turn to check out Emotiv's Epoc neural detector.
The headpiece, its stiff fingers slipping through my hair to find my scalp as it was placed on my head, felt like something alien settling onto my skull to roost, perhaps before enjoying a light snack.
A nearby monitor showed the color-coded diagram of a brain, my brain. Each of the 14 or so fingers of the Epoc were indicated with dots that changed colors to show if they were detecting the movement of electricity from neuron to neuron inside my brain.
But one stubbornly refused to light up at all.
"Maybe my front lobes don't work," I suggested helpfully, as a tech jimmied the headpiece around on my head, pushing here and there, as he tried to get that last button to light up.
Finally that last button turned green and the Emotiv folks asked me what I'd like to do first.
"I think I'd like to levitate something," I said.
To start you need to quickly synch your brain, teaching the computer to recognise the thought you use to perform the specific action. In my case I imagined the box in the center of the monitor drifting away.
After doing this for a second or two, while the program "recorded" they asked me to give it a try.. and it worked. Imagining the box floating up off the top of the screen, I was surprised to see it waver and then slowly move upwards until it disappeared.
I laughed in surprise and the box immediately dropped back down again.
After a second, failed, attempt and another quick synching session, I was able to make the box float up and down by simply thinking about it.
The sensation was quite strange. You don't really feel anything, but you can sort of tell that a particular thought or visualisation seems to have a direct effect on the game.
I found myself inadvertently tightening my stomach muscles, or raising an eyebrow when I tried to make the box float, or later disappear, by thinking about it.
The Emotiv guy used his hands to try and cue himself to think the same way every time, performing what suspiciously looked like something out of Star Wars to get things to float or vanish. But they said that wasn't really necessary. In fact, they are playing around with a game mode that would punish any physical movements you make while trying to perform the mental magic.
The team also showed me, but wouldn't let me play, the game that will ship with the Epoc when it goes on sale later this year.
In the game you play as a student of a form of mental martial-arts. You wander around a mountain learning how to use your mind to do things like push and pull objects with thought, scare away spirits with a grimace and turn items invisible.
The game also senses the players mood and changes the in-game environment around them to suit it. For instance, if you're bored or unhappy the game's sky turns a greenish tint and the music softens, but as you become excited the sky turns a nasty shade of red and the music grows louder.
The game was created by Demiure Studios and is meant to be a showcase piece for the hardware, something that proves that the $US 300 device it's not just a bit of cool gadgetry, but something that could have serious implications in the world of video games.
From what I saw it did look a little light on content, but the ability to control items with your mind in the game, will likely still make it a hit among certain set of gamers.
I was a little concerned with the underlying technology, though. From the demonstrations I saw and participated in, the device seemed mostly to detect whether you were or weren't doing one thing. In other words, it could tell when I was trying to float a rock or not trying. But it was hard to tell just how sophisticated that detection was. Could it, for instance, differentiate between my trying to levitate a rock and make one disappear? The Emotiv people said it absolutely could, but they didn't demonstrate that.
Also, it was hard to really tell just how sensitive it was. From what I saw, the thing either detected none of the proper thought, or 100 percent of it, it seemed like there was no middle ground, something that could create serious problems for developers wanting to use the device for more precise controls.
While I think the technology is fascinating, even stunning at times, it's hard to tell at this point whether it has real world practical video game applications. Of everything I saw the one thing that most interested me was the concept of wearing this device to track your emotions, relaying that to a game and then allowing the game to use it to tweak your experience.
Imagine, for instance, a Silent Hill that knows what scares you most and how scared you are at any particular moment in the game. The implications are frightening.