Mattel Inc. has just released a new toy at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas which began this week. The Mind Flex includes a head set that uses basic neurofeedback to control real objects, such as a foam ball that is elevated by miniature fans and can be guided through a customisable obstacle course. The device uses simple detection of alpha and theta brain rhythms to control the speed of the fans.
The idea of using neurofeedback as a mind-controlled input device is not particularly novel. I’ve commented previously on Emotiv’s commercialisation of just such an interface, although the EmotivEpoc makes somewhat wider claims than the Mind Flex when it come to describing exactly what the software is capable of controlling. Their device also detects neuromuscular activity such as winks and smiles, which can be used for directional control of mobile devices – Emotiv shows the device controlling an electric wheelchair. What makes the Mind Flex notable, however, is that Mattel has put together a toy that targets children eight and over and will be offered at a price comparable with a video game (around US$80). Compare this with the EmotivEpoc which will be priced at US$299 once it’s out of beta and on the shelves.
Mattel has bought into this type of interface technology before. In 1989 it developed the Powerglove, a haptic device that sought to replace the mouse or keyboard when the user interacted with an on-screen game developed by its partner Nintendo for use with the Home Entertainment System. Mattel was able to keep the price of the technology low by employing a printed form of a strain-gauge for each finger joint of the glove.
While complete control of an interface by mind alone is probably still at the feasible-but-not-yet-do-able stage, devices such as the Mind Flex constitute the first small steps in that direction. Practically speaking I think the most likely “holistic” systems will combine inputs such as voice, gesture and brain waves, and even the occasional keypress to achieve effective communication in a computer mediated setting. I’m still waiting for the inevitable emergence of computer-aided telepathic enhancement (CATE), where the computer takes a back seat, quietly enhancing and transmitting or receiving our thoughts in the background while we just think at each other. Not too different from what happens already when humans “empathise”, perhaps? The system would just take the guesswork out of interpreting someone else’s intentions.
(image sourced from here).
Here’s a video of Mindflex in action uploaded in 2009: