Brainwave toys are back

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Weird headsets that read people's minds? It sounds like dystopian science fiction, but these gadgets (helped by a little old-fashioned muscle measurement) are set to be the holiday season's hot toys. The promised future, of mind games that lapse into punishing tension headaches, is finally upon us.

Brain Playground Day
If you're old enough to remember the early 1980s, you'd be forgiven a degree of skepticism. Atari's Mindlink introduced the headband form factor and some of the tech seen in its modern counterparts, but didn't even get the chance to be a pioneering flop.

Atari Museum describes it so:

The headband would read resistance from muscles in the users forehead and interpret them into commands on the screen. ... Atari was ahead of its time with innovations such as these and given time for refinement and newer design technologies the idea of the Mindlink system would've grown into a successful peripheral.

A version of Breakout was developed, but the gaming biz hit hard times and Mindlink was canned before it went into production. Times change, however, just as technology moves on and patents lapse. By the mid-2000s, other companies developed their own mind-controlled toys, which started cropping up at trade events like the Consumer Electronics Show.

NeuroSky is most prominent of the newcomers, scoring licensing deals with Sega Toys and Square Enix. I got brains-on with a prototype for Wired:

The prototype headgear is hacked into pairs of headphones, and measures baseline brainwave activity, said to provide an insight into states of relaxation and anxiety ... Liu continually tells me to remain calm, to calm my thoughts, to think of calm, but all I want to do is crush enemies with desks.

It's hard to describe the experience. I was able to maintain a high level of whatever it actually measured but it didn't seem to be calmness. ...

"It's like flexing a muscle you didn't know you had," Liu said.

Neurosky plans educational gear to help attention-deficit youngsters learn focus, but gaming is where the hype is. It's not the only company aiming to develop brainwave toys, either: Hitachi has a brain-controlled model railroad in its lab, and Emotiv has partnered with Intel as it works on its own rig--its design has 14 electrodes to NeuroSky's one, but remains a specialist product. There's also Mindball, a $20,000 table game built on similar principles.

Now, how about those toys? Here's what you can buy, right now.

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Star Wars Force Trainer

Uncle Milton's $80 Force Trainer "fulfills a fantasy everyone has had, using The Force," says Lucasfilm's Howard Roffman. The aim of the game: concentrate hard enough for a ball to rise to the top of a perspex tube. Star Wars sound effects indicate the state of play, and add licensed flavor.

Force Trainer [Amazon]

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Mind Flex

Also from Mattel and NeuroSky, Mind Flex is a more involved and challenging affair: train your thoughts to increase power to a fan which blows a ball through a course of hoops. Yes, I know, it's hardly Akira.

Mindflex Game [Amazon]

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Neural Impulse Actuator

Computer equipment house OCZ makes the "brain mouse" that uses electroencephalogram (EEG) readings of brain waves and eye movements to push its pointer. It's PC-compatible, and usable as a generic game controller as a result, but don't throw out your Logitech just yet: it doesn't offer multiple axes of movement.

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NeuroSky's own standalone brain-measurer is twice the price of OCZ's, but looks comfier and is bundled with fun extras. Built into a set of BlueTooth headphones, it comes with a package of games and brainwave visualizing software.

The included Adventures of Neuroboy, for example, offers various scenarios requiring the use of telekinetic powers to progress. Back-of-the-box bullet points include "Throw benches around" and "Set cars on fire."

Also in development is a title from top developer Square Enix, announced late last year. A dev-kit is included for programmers.

Now, it's easy to be down on this stuff: however cool consumer-affordable EEG visualization is, it's pretty primitive as gaming goes. The same single axis of control, as offered by the original Mindlink in the 1980s, is the core feature. But there's something fascinating about how the new stuff echoes the old, right down to the use of elaborate marketing to imbue crude technology with whatever can be drawn from the player's imagination.

Take Breakout, that classic single-axis game. It was, you may recall, the story of a determined astronaut's harrowing return to Earth.

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Either that, or it was a ball, a wall, and a bat.