Thinking about the Ultimate Controller

Matt Barton's picture

Although Nintendo fanboys like to act like the Wii's new remote controller is only a wee bit short of a revolution (sorry, couldn't resist), the real future seems to lie in something a bit more radical: Say, controlling a game of Space Invaders with nothing but your brain. Some clever spudboys at the Washington University of St. Louis decided that the best way to help them treat a severe case of epilepsy in a 14-year old was to hook his brain up to the game and watch what happened. In no time at all, the kid was clearing whole levels just by thinking about where he wanted the ship to move and fire--as easily as moving a hand! You've got to see this video!

What's really fascinating about this to me is not so much how tech like this might allow us to substitute our brains for mouse or joystick movement. What blows my mind is how tech like this could liberate us from those old keyboard/mouse/joystick/gamepad paradigms in the first place. Why stop with simulating button-mashing and stick-jerking? A true "brain controller" could let us move our avatars much more realistically--we could literally imagine ourselves running, ducking for cover, and swinging our light sabre, and actually see all that happening on the screen.

I realize that tech like this is still generations away, but I do think it's important to keep it in sight.

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Bill Loguidice
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Consumer Mind Control

Ah, research! I love how it's listed as "Atari's" Space Invaders. Oh well.

In any case, consumer "mind control" has actually been experimented with and released as commercial products since the late 70's. Most of these devices I believe worked by receiving signals only from the frontal lobes (OK, right and left temples), meaning you could only influence movement left and right by thinking more on one side of your brain. Obviously this was not an ideal control scheme, but this didn't stop various products from coming out. I remember one ambitous attempt in the 1995ish timeframe for one such device for the PC along with about a half dozen software titles, ranging from skiing games to a type of first person shooter. There was a big marketing blitz and fairly elaborate in-store displays and demo kiosks, but it obviously never took off.

I'm as much for gimmick controllers as the next guy and always have been. Certainly what was demonstrated in the video has unique possibilities even beyond brain therapy/rehabilitation. I would however like to see such a "controller" put to use for something more than the typical action game. Just think of what innovative product could be developed designed around thought/impulse control? These are baby steps and only when the true implications of this alternative form of control can really be explored will I truly get excited. It's just like with the Wii - I'm not exactly enthused controlling the same types of games with a different control scheme. I'd rather see software designed to take advantage of the strengths of the control and minimize its weaknesses. Again, there's a reason why joysticks and gamepads have been the primary form of game control for as long as they have.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
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Matt Barton
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Joined: 01/16/2006
Abstraction and Game Controllers

That's a good point, Bill. Over the years we've seen controllers evolve from simple knobs and buttons to joysticks and finally to gamepads (with various hybrids and keyboard-combos along the way). I think the reason these controllers have triumphed is that they are so versatile--plus, the mechanism is very abstract. Players are familiar with the gamepad and thus don't have to continuously retrain. After enough use, you simply forget that you're using a gamepad (at least, not consciously) and just focus on the game. Of course, pains in the thumb or wrist are enough to remind you of the physical aspect...

Specialty controllers, like the virtual baseball bat for the SNES and steering wheels, are obviously more limited and only suitable for certain kinds of games. Plus, it's more challenging to get these setup in a convenient way. I'm sure that many games would benefit from a special controller made just for them, but that's just not practical in the long run.

I can remember, for instance, when many games came with a keyboard overlay that eliminated the need to have to memorize or constantly search in the manual for key codes. I haven't seen these in a long time. Now, the controls are so standardized and universal that you shouldn't need one--plus, most games like FPSs are smart enough to let you program the codes you're already familiar with for things like grenades, flash lights, jumping and so forth. I remember lots of folks complaining back in the 8-bit and 16-bit games when a game came out that used the "wrong" button for jumping or shooting. It's not that it's "wrong," it's just that they were already accustomed to the "standard" setup established by the pack-ins and other prominent titles on the system.

What's really neat about the "mind controller" is that it's even more abstract than the gamepad or keyboard/mouse combo. The big question (to me, at least) is whether something like this could ever be as precise. Space Invaders is a very simple game--left, right, shoot. What I'd like to see is someone using their brain to play Doom or Civilization. That would definitely require more "brain power," but the possibilities once that's reached are endless.

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Bill Loguidice
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Better Mind Control

Well, a relatively high-level of mind control has been achieved with several paraplegic patients, though I think that may require a bit more of an invasive brain link. Nevertheless, they're able to accurately control an on-screen mouse pointer. I believe "clicking" is achieved either through eye blinks or just keeping the pointer on a selection for a certain amount of time. Similarly, amputees are able to control "robotic" limbs with nerve links and "thinking" about using the arm/hand like their original appendage. Obviously the key with both of those technologies is to capture specific brain waves without having to "jack in" directly and invasively. The more brain wave impressions a device is able to capture, I imagine the more sophisticated the options could be, all the way up to what one could achieve with a mouse and full keyboard.

I'm still not sold on mind control at the moment as anything more than another gimmick or specialty control, like a light gun, dance pad or video camera.

=================================
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
[ My collection ]
[ http://www.MythCore.com ]

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Mat Tschirgi (not verified)
Atari did this as a prototype in the 1980's

I was reading a book by Chris Crawford not too long ago where he mentions working for Atari in the 1980's and he mentioned they had a prototype of a controller done with hookups to your head where you could control a game via mind control. He side the downsides of the controller were that people experienced severe headaches after using it for a long time!

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Mark Vergeer
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one of my first reports was about that subject....

Would you believe me if I told you that one of my first reports ever - at the ripe old age of 6 or 7(stand in front of classroom and give a little talk on the subject, using pictures etc) was on various types of prostethic devices for amputees devices that people could use by thinking about their old limb where the nerve endings would elicit an action potential picted up by the prostetic device. The little presentation included my hope for paralplegic people to be able to control some sort of (exo)skeleton by use of thought in thus being able to walk again in the future.

Most of my classmates just sat there with their eyes glazed.... ah well....

-= Mark Vergeer - Armchair Arcade editor =-

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Seb
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Joined: 06/04/2006
Mind Maze

"they had a prototype of a controller done with hookups to your head where you could control a game via mind control."

That's actually true.. it was called Mind Maze. you can check it out here:

http://www.atariprotos.com/2600/software/mindmaze/mindmaze.htm

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