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Brain-powered games

August 13, 2008 |  5:30 pm

Look ma, no hands!

A Drexel University researcher today presented a game that lets players control the action on the screen merely by concentrating. The game, called Lazybrains, uses a technology that measures oxygen levels in the frontal cortex of the player to determine neural activity. By thinking hard enough, the player can perform various actions on the screen, such as moving obstacles out of the way.

The technology, called functional near-infrared imaging, measures oxygen levels in various portions of the brain by projecting infrared lighting into the brain via a headband. The device was initially developed at Drexel's School of Biomedical Engineering in Philadelphia as a way to detect when patients under anesthesia were conscious but unable to move.

Its use as a game controller came about when students from Drexel's RePlay Lab on Computer Gaming sought out the biomedical engineering students. Voila! Lazybrains was born. The game stars Morby, a couch potato who was transported into another dimension as punishment for failing to use his noodle. To make his way back home, he has to strain his brain to remove objects that stand in his way. The game is not commercially available but was presented as an academic project in Los Angeles at this year's Siggraph, an annual conference for computer graphics researchers.

Though such research is in its infancy, mind-machine interfaces are not entirely new. Duke University earlier this year demonstrated that a monkey that could control a robot halfway around the world by using his brain. Eventually, amputees would be able to control prosthetics just by thinking about what they want to do.

In games, several companies have also explored this concept, including ...   

... Emotiv Systems in San Francisco, which introduced its EPOC headset in February at the Game Developers Conference. The $299 device, which is not yet on the market, uses 16 sensors to monitor electrical impulses generated by the brain to make objects in a game move or vanish.

OCZ Technology, which makes memory and computer peripherals, came out this year with a $300 headband called the Neural Impulse Actuator, which uses brain electrical impulses to control games such as Unreal Tournament.

Lazybrains These products are starting to gain more attention because game companies are becoming aware of a huge untapped market of consumers who don't play games because traditional game controllers have become too byzantine for novice players.

"The notion of how a user interacts with the game has changed," said Paul Diefenbach, a professor of digital media and co-director of the Drexel’s RePlay Lab. "We saw that with the Wii. There, you went from a controller to a wand. But there are so many other things you can explore. There's eye tracking, or finger movements and arm gestures. With multi-touch capabilities, you’re touching the objects you want to move. That’s much more natural for us. A lot of what we’re doing is investigating how to break down the barriers between the game and users."

Or you can just use the force.

-- Alex Pham

Video of Lazybrains courtesy of Drexel University's RePlay Lab on Computer Gaming and Voxel6. Photo of Hasan Ayaz, doctoral student at Drexel University's School of Biomedical Engineering using the functional near-infrared imaging device to play Lazybrains, courtesy of Drexel University.