We’re Close to Getting Mind-Reading Computers

Dan Tynan
Yahoo Tech

“You are not getting in the car with that thing on your head.”

I was waiting outside the train station, a Muse headband wrapped securely around my forehead. My wife was amused but insistent.

“You are obliterating my calm,” I said serenely as I gently removed the device.

“It looks like something you’d wear to a Grateful Dead concert,” the 15-year-old in the passenger seat chimed in, before admitting she had only a vague idea of what The Grateful Dead was. “Something from the ’70s, anyway.” She said “the ’70s” the way most adults would say “the 13th century.”

I may have looked like a dork from an ancient era, but this was no ordinary headband. Inside the Muse were five extremely sensitive sensors to measure my brain activity (such as it is), designed to help teach me how to soothe my overactive mind.

Muse is one of the first commercially available gadgets to bridge the gap between our brains and our devices. It’s a $300 EEG monitor that doesn’t make you look like an escapee from a mental ward.

It’s also an important early step toward something much bigger: The ability to control objects — your phone, computer, car stereo, game console, lights inside your house, and more — using only your thoughts.

Zen and now
Muse’s initial goal is far less ambitious. Using a game-like mobile app called Calm, it measures your brain waves and teaches you how to reduce stress.

I started by slipping the headband over my forehead and behind my ears, while trying not to think about how much I looked like Olivia Newton-John in the “Let’s Get Physical” video.

On the left: Ariel Garten, CEO of InteraXon, maker of the Muse headband. On the right, the saucy Aussie. Who says the ’80s are dead?

It had to be a snug fit, because the Bluetooth-connected Muse needs to pick up the infinitesimally small electrical signals emanating from the gray matter through the skin. An eye blink or other facial movement would create too much noise and interfere with the signal.

First the app calibrates your brain in an active state, using the world’s most soothing male or female narrator. (When I die, I hope the spirit guiding me to the next incarnation sounds like one of them.) Then you go through a breathing exercise of three to 12 minutes, while the app displays a bucolic beach scene and plays audio of waves lapping against the shore.

The more low-frequency delta and theta waves your brain generates — in other words, the calmer you are — the more points you rack up. If you stay calm for long enough, a bird will flutter down onto the beach next to you. (Then you get excited because you just earned a bird, your brain activity goes up, and it immediately flies away.) If your brain is hyperactive, the beach scene gets stormier and you get fewer points.

When the session is over, Calm displays a series of graphs and charts showing your brain activity. I found that if I just ignored the app and continued working while being monitored, my brain activity definitely spiked.

The low-frequency waves at the beginning and end represent me breathing; the spikes in the middle are me working. 

When you’ve racked up 5,000 points, the app unlocks new ways to explore your data and learn more about how your brain works, says Garten.

Did it work? Yes, at least for me. Can you achieve the same state of stress-free relaxation without dropping serious coin on a high-tech headband? Yes, admits Garten.

But, she adds, most people don’t know how, and even those who meditate on a regular basis find they can go deeper and faster with the biofeedback provided by Muse. That’s why they designed the app as a game — to give users fake goals until the real rewards of reduced stress and mindfulness kick in.

Also: You don’t need to wear it all the time or necessarily in public, unless you’re just that kind of geek. A few minutes a day is all that’s required.

Mind craft
This technology is not new. For decades, people have been using neural feedback to train astronauts, nuclear engineers, and professional athletes. Schools and clinics have used EEG monitors to increase the attention spans of kids with ADHD. Companies like Emotiv have demonstrated this technology at tradeshows. What’s different now is that it’s finally small and inexpensive enough to be available to the masses. 

Granted, breathing is not the most exciting way to spend $300. But it’s a short leap from reading brain signals to using them as a way to control gadgets. For example, in 2012 engineers at InteraXon built a beer tap you can turn on and off with your mind. (Now I know what I want for Christmas.)

This is not as magical as it might look. Essentially, you program the tap to respond when brain wave activity rises or lowers. You don’t have to be thinking, “Man I could really use a beer right now,” you just need to be thinking about something. Same goes for when you want to shut it off (but be sure to have an empty pitcher handy, just in case).

InteraXon is one of a handful of companies pushing EEG tech towards the mass market. Another is Freer Logic, whose Play Attention app has been used in thousands of schools, clinics, and homes for more than a decade.  (The company’s motto: Yes. We CAN read your mind.)

Initially, Play Attention relied on an EEG monitor the size and shape of a bicycle helmet, says CEO Peter Freer. Five years ago he shrank that technology down to an armband called the BodyWave, which reads brain signals through the body instead of the head.

Freer opted for an armband because he says nobody wants to wear something on his head — it’s what’s kept brain-sensing tech from going mainstream, he argues. (Garten respectfully disagrees.)

The next step? Cars, says Freer. Panasonic is collaborating with Freer Logic to develop this tech to sell to auto manufacturers, so they can embed it inside steering wheels. Sensors embedded in the wheel will detect if a driver is becoming inattentive or drowsy, then vibrate the wheel or alert the driver through the car’s onboard computer.

And as with InterAxon’s beer tap, you may be able to turn the radio on and off by merely concentrating, or have the music adjust automatically to match your mood. This technology could show up as a feature in new cars as early as 2016.

The next step, says Freer, is to identify the unique brain signatures associated with each thought, and then program a device to associate those patterns with a certain action — like “turn the radio on.”

Like early speech recognition software, which required people to read long passages so the software could become attuned to their vocal patterns, then go back and carefully correct mistakes, brain signal recognition will involve a lot of trial and error, Freer says. Eventually, though, you’ll build up a vocabulary of thoughts that devices can respond to. In 15 or 20 years, he adds, this technology could become as seamless as Siri or Google Now.

This is your brain on games
But the place where most people are likely to encounter brain tech is inside games, says Zack Lynch, author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science is Changing Our World and founder of the NeuroGaming conference.

In a first-person shooter, for example, you may not be able to fire until you’ve reached a high enough level of concentration or a sufficiently calm state. Or you can just wander around, pick up large objects with your mind, and chuck them — as in Crooked Tree Studios’ “Throw Trucks With Your Mind,” which uses NeuroSky’s MindWave headset as a game controller.

“This is where mind and body meet gameplay,” he says. “We’re looking at integrating the nervous system directly into the game experience.”

Lynch’s background is in neurotechnology; he started the gaming conference as a way to persuade gaming companies to fund R&D that can later be applied to brain disorders such as Parkinson’s and depression. But these are still very early days.

“I see this as a 10-year project, and we’re probably in year two,” he says.

In five years, brain sensors will probably be as common as body sensors like the Jawbone UP are today, Garten says. In 10 or 15 years, thought-controlled computing will be a reality in many home environments, she adds.

“It seems totally like science-fiction,” she says. “But at one time, so did controlling devices with your voice or making video calls across continents.”

Will you one day control devices using only your mind? It’s certainly something to think about.

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.