Brainwave toys are back


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.


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]


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]


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.

mindset.jpg MindSet

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.


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


  1. Word on the street is that Emotiv is dead and just hasn’t announced it yet. They’ve been laying off people.

  2. If you take out the punctuation and spaces a “ball, a wall, and a bat” turn into “aballawallandabat” which, I believe, is an Australian Marsupial of some sort.

  3. I worked at Atari in 1984 or so when this controller was being developed. Knew the s/w engineer who was writing sample code for it and so on.

    Truly a pain to use. Every time I used it, I wound up with a headache.

    [The developer was a little sad. He would wander the halls with one of these strapped to his forehead. He was /so/ convinced he’d be a mult-millionaire…]

  4. I’d be really interested in knowing how this works and how well it works. I was looking at a number of home-brew DIY EEG readers, with off the shelf parts and open source software, but there wasn’t anything that was going to cost less than $500.

    I’d be amazed if a commercial toy would come out with good accuracy for a fifth of the price.

  5. I got a Mindflex as soon as it came out. I’m infatuated with the whole concept of artificial telekinesis.

    You’re really just controlling air pressure. Concentrate and the airstream increases, raising the foam ball. Decrease your concentration and the air flow weakens, lowering the foam ball. The game part is to set up obstacle courses and move the air nozzle with a dial to maneuver the ball around the course.

    The game gets dull pretty quickly, and the metal knob that rests against your forehead can be uncomfortable, but I break it out for guests and would take it to a game night (if I did such thing).

    The attempts to debunk are many, and unconvincing. No debunker is moving the ball through an obstacle course, and none can predict the movement of the ball. When I demonstrate to people, I tell them: now I’ll raise it, now I’ll lower it. When asked to sustain the ball’s position, I can do it upon request. Obviously, anecdotal, and I may be fooling myself, but it doesn’t strike me as an outrageous claim that this toy uses simple EEG measurements to control the air flow.

  6. The game control part is just the forehead muscles. There’s nothing fancy about that at all. The EEG stuff is more interesting but isn’t something IIRC that the user can just sit and control.

  7. Had the pleasure of playing Mindball at NextFest in Chicago a year or two ago in Millenium Park. They told me to just relax to move the ball so when I sat down facing my opponent and they said start, I closed my mind and just suddenly went insta-zen. Apparently I won in less than two seconds.

    Fun game but needs more to it.

  8. I bought Journey to the Wild Divine a while back. It is a mac/pc software/hardware combo that reads biorhythms and uses them to control the software in a Myst type world. It was pretty damn cool at the time. I might have to dig through the archives and bust it out.

  9. “Word on the street is emotiv is dead […]”

    I hope not, it seemed like they actually had a pretty good product in development and they teamed up with Intel, so I’d be surprised if funding was lacking. There have been lots of delays, but they’ve done demos with pretty positive results, so a functioning product exists. Their website also started selling $500 SDK kits that come with a headset and there’s a long thread on their forum that discusses the shipping/production delays. They indicate on page 12 that the next batch will ship the first week of November. It would be a shame if a product so near to completion got scrapped.

    Here’s a NY Times review of the system from 2008.

Comments are closed.