Imagine a world where your brainwaves offer you another degree of freedom
in a control system -- and think of how useful that freedom would be for
someone who can’t use a conventional controller like a mouse. We can’t
lift starfighters with Jedi Mind Tricks just yet, but the MindGames group
is taking strides in that direction through the non-invasive real-time
analysis of human brainwaves. Mind Balance was the first application
developed by the MindGames group as part of an ambitious collaboration with researchers at
University College Dublin to implement new brain-computer control
the Mawg for a Walk
In Mind Balance, a participant must assist a tightrope-walking
(apparently Scottish) behemoth known as the Mawg, by helping him keep his
balance as he totters across a cosmic tightrope. All in a day’s work for a
typical computer gamer - but a participant at the helm of Mind Balance has
no joystick, no mouse, and not even a camera - only a brain cap that
non-invasively measures signals from the back of the head.
Specifically, the cap
monitors electrical signals from the surface of the scalp over the
occipital lobes (just above the neck). The occipital lobes are the home of the brain’s visual
processing, and they sport an effectively direct connection to the eyes via
the brain’s optical nerve. When the participant stares at regions on the
screen that are blinking at known frequencies, their brain processes that
blinking in enigmatically complex ways. But one side-effect of that
processing – an increase in electrical activity at the same frequency as
the blinking orb – is sufficiently pronounced that it can be detected in
the electromagnetic soup at the surface of the head. These detectable artifacts are called Visually Evoked Potentials, or VEPs.
If the Mawg slips to the
right, the participant can help shift the creature’s balance back to the
left by staring at the orb flickering on the left-hand side of the screen.
The subsequent change in brainwave electrical activity is detected by the
system as a VEP, and transformed into a one-dimensional analog control
axis that can be used to get the Mawg back on track.
All of this requires some fairly fancy graphical and signal processing
footwork. In order that the blinking of the orbs produces a signal that
can be reliably detected, the orbs must be rendered at a consistent 60
frames-per-second or more. Symphony's C# graphics engine and scenegraph is
capable of rendering the orbs, together with the animated Mawg and his
environment, at over 100 fps on conventional hardware running Windows XP.
It would certainly be
possible, given performance figures like these, to perform signal
acquisition and processing on the same PC that is rendering the graphics.
But in order to facilitate rapid development, and decouple the signal
acquisition and processing steps from the actual gameplay, we used the
Sponge signal processing framework (a component of Symphony) to offload
signal processing to another PC. On that signal acquisition PC, the
electrical signals are acquired from the brain, VEPs are detected, and the
left-right feature is extracted. That simple feature is then sent across
the network to the computer that controls the Mawg and renders the Mind
It’s a comparably simple
step to take the Mind Balance technology and add another axis, thereby
turning it into a two-dimensional controller. And another technique
currently under development involves the observation of imagined muscle
movements. Instead of staring at the blinking orb, using this technique you would just
imagine moving your left hand, and the character would move left. So although
today we’re just taking the Mawg out for a walk, tomorrow we may be making
Jedi Mind Tricks a reality!
Answers to some questions
1. Do you need a lot of complicated training to use Mind Balance?
No. A new player only requires a 45-second
training phase that uses acoustic feedback. During that time, both the
participant and the system are being "trained." The system
determines the unique baseline EEG patterns that it can expect from the
participant, and the participant discovers what constitutes a "good
stare," because the steady-state VEP feature their brain produces is
governed more by focus-of-attention than it is on what objects are present
in their field of view.
2. Is the technology experimental only? Is
it ready for the market?
Currently, the technology is in a prototype
phase, but there is no reason why it couldn't eventually find its way to
the market. The Symphony
software architecture runs on conventional hardware, and we often run Mind
Balance on a laptop. The Cerebus hardware device is patented, and it is
our hope that it will move beyond the experimental phase. I'm afraid we
can't be more specific about the timeline!
High Resolution Images
Can be found here.
The MindGames group is indebted to our colleagues
at University College Dublin, including
Simon Kelly and
University College Dublin Elec. Eng. department, for their contributions
to the signal processing that underlies Mind Balance.
- Robert Burke, Architect and Lead Developer