Emotiv's Epoc Neuroheadset Preview

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Company: Emotiv
Platform: PC
Official Site emotiv.com

Total immersion is the Holy Grail of gaming. The ability to simulate a fully interactive and engaging environment would be the ultimate form of entertainment, and has served as the fodder for many television shows, films, novels and even games, ranging from Star Trek's holodeck to Arnold Schwarzenegger's adventures in Total Recall to Red Dwarf's "Better Than Life" game. It's even a common theme for dystopian futures in which humanity has become disconnected from reality (The Matrix, among many others). Unfortunately, total immersion requires far better technology than we have at present.

Emotiv Systems hopes to change that. Emotiv's Epoc Neuroheadset isn't going to make full immersion possible, but it should go a long way toward turning thoughts into reality. The company's tag line is, "It's the thought that counts." It looks like Emotiv will turn that phrase into something more than just an apology.

Projected Release: Late 2008
Kyle Ackerman

Better Than Life?

At the Game Developers Conference in early 2007, Emotiv Systems surprised attendees with a simple exhibit in which passers-by could affect gameplay using a few skull-mounted sensors in a compelling technology demo. It turns out that Emotiv has been around since 2003, and in a corporate cotillion, burst forth, announcing itself to the high-technology world in late February 2008.

Emotiv's Nam Do (Hungry)Behind all the slick names and marketing, the Epoc Neuroheadset is actually a very cool device. It's a home version of an Electroencephalography (EEG) device designed to measure electrical activity of the brain. It's also been engineered into a cool-looking wireless headset with a battery Emotiv claims will operate for 12 hours. There's even a gyro in the headset so that the device can track which way you are pointing your head.

The coolest thing about the headset is less obvious. The sensors have been designed to work without smothering your head in conductive gel, as comparable medical technology often does. Gaming certainly wouldn't have the same appeal for me if I had to douse my scalp in goop to play. Imagine: "I just logged out of the game! I'll come to dinner as soon as I shower and wash all this blue crap out of my hair!" Instead, Emotiv has created a device that (with some careful arranging) sits on your head more like an elaborate hat and can be slipped off in a moment.

Don't Just Listen to the Music. Feel the Music

When introducing the device to the public, Emotiv CEO Nam Do suggested myriad applications, declaring, "Being able to control a computer with your mind is the ultimate quest of human-machine interaction." Of course, things aren't that sophisticated, yet. The physical headset is an achievement, but the other half of the achievement is the supporting software that recognizes certain electrical patterns and translates them into key responses that can be integrated into games or other applications.

Emotiv's Epoc NeuroheadsetRight now, Emotiv says it can recognize around thirty different emotions, actions and expressions. It can recognize "emotional detections such as immersion, excitement, meditation, tension and frustration; facial expressions such as a smile, laugh, wink, crossed eyes, shock (eyebrows raised), anger (eyebrows furrowed), horizontal eye movement, smirk and grimace (clenched teeth); and cognitive actions such as push, pull, lift, drop and rotate (on six different axes) as well as...the ability to make objects disappear."

With all of those functions, there's a lot that can be done with the Emotiv headset and software. Moving objects with your mind is the most obvious. Mr. Do wants to see games respond more to the emotional state and impulses of the player. He suggested that music could respond to the player's mood or state of tension rather than changing at scripted moments. The difficulty level of a game could be adjusted dynamically to fit a gamer's level of frustration. Or, more viscerally, let's say the player was enjoying a game based on Marvel's Hulk character. Bruce Banner could transform into his alter ego when the player got angry.

Mr. Do also focused on the uses of the headset for communication. Many gamers already use voice chat, and are familiar with emoticons, but there's little to convey the subtleties of expression in, say, a massively multiplayer online game like World of Warcraft. Imagine if your character's face and head were tied into something like the Epoc Neuroheadset. Then, people would be able to see who you were looking at (using the gyroscope) instead of which direction you were facing, and would see you smile, laugh or frown. Compared to science-fiction, the technology is still coarse-grained, but compared to a typical instant messaging program, it's god-like.

Most Mammals Have Hair

Emotiv's Epoc NeuroheadsetForunately, it was easy to get a chance to try on the headset and see how the technology feels. In my opinion, donning the Epoc Neuroheadset is the biggest problem with the technology. It has a lot of sensors, and each has to be positioned on the right part of the skull. My problem is... I have a lot of hair. I saw a bald fellow put on the headset, and very quickly the tool that shows the sensors' status showed every detector going green. For people like me, it takes a bit of adjusting to work the sensors into contact with the scalp and get a solid reading from all of them. Frankly, I'd be afraid to scratch my head during play. I'd imagine it's even worse for people with curly or stiff, frizzy hair. Perhaps if the technology ever gets popular enough, hairstyles will change to suit the technology.

Once you get started, it's remarkably intuitive to use. Emotiv has done a great job of calibrating the technology so that it's easy to follow simple instructions and learn how to manipulate the virtual space. It's as if I were sitting on the couch with a cold beer, just out of reach. Instead of actually getting up, I can just will the beer to come to me, and it does... at least within the virtual world. The whole experience is very satisfying, and while it's not sophisticated enough yet to be the sole interface for anything other than a slow-paced (perhaps adventure-style) game, it's an unbelievable supplement to the traditional gamepad or keyboard and mouse. And if you want, the EmoKey software will allow you to map certain headset responses to keys, so you could simply will the teamspeak button on, if you want. It's easy to see gamers and casual users integrating the Epoc Neuroheadset into their gaming habits, as long as the games themselves do.

Ready... Set... Make Games For It

Speaking of the games, Emotiv has launched the software development kit (SDK) so that game developers can integrate the technology, and plans to adhere to an open standard to make companies more likely to take up the technology. Interested folks can already download the "SDKLite" for free, or can order the full SDK with prototype headsets.

Emotiv's Emortal PortalSo how soon will the Epoc Neuroheadset find its way into games? Hard to say. How soon will it be available to the average Joe? Late this year. In late 2008, the Epoc Neruoheadset will go on sale for $299. That's a lot for a game peripheral, but fairly affordable given the technology that goes into reading your mind. The real issue that will drive sales is: How many games will support the headset in some way?

Fortunately, Emotiv also plans to include the Emortal portal, an interface for exploring parts of the internet, controlled by the Epoc Neuroheadset. Based on what was shown of Emortal, it looks like a fascinating interface. It's designed as a gateway for everything from media like photos and music to online destinations and even games. The space is visually represented as a cityscape, but one that shifts and pulses with the user's mood. Based on the user's own electrical brain activity, Emortal will try to respond to the user's desires and feelings, shifting colors or navigating to areas such as a portal for a picture gallery. Combined with the headset's pedigree as a communication device, Emotiv hopes to transform the way we surf the 'net. All while revolutionizing the way we play games.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on April 13, 2008 11:48 AM.

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