Couch potatoes everywhere, rejoice.
New commercial devices, using technology borrowed from the field of neuroscience, are making it possible to control objects with brain power alone. The idea is to help train users to become more focused — and relaxed.
EEG headsets, which detect electrical activity in the brain, were once found only in research labs. Today, the technology has become cheaper and easier to use. That's made it possible to connect EEG headsets to other consumer devices.
Recently, Johnny Liu, a manager for the San Jose-based company NeuroSky, came into the KQED studio to show off one such pairing: NeuroSky's MindWave Mobile headset, which costs under $100, and a toy called the Orbit brain-controlled helicopter, which retails for $190.
The helicopter is about 8 inches wide, with three small propellers, all enclosed in a black, circular cage.
Liu strapped on his EEG, short for electroencephalogram, headset to try it out.
"I'm driving up my attention level," Liu explained. The more he appeared to concentrate, the higher the helicopter soared, levitating several feet above the tabletop. Then it abruptly crashed into my face.
Liu apologized, and then it was my turn. Focus on the helicopter "as if you actually had telekinetic powers," Liu told me.
But the helicopter stayed put.
The device was designed to train me to concentrate on one single thought as much as possible. Focused attention changes certain electrical patterns inside the brain. The EEG headset picks up those changes and, in turn, drives the helicopter.
Finally, I got the helicopter to fly. For about 3 seconds.
Another game — this one still in prototype — uses EEG readings to make music.
He fired it up for me recently in the KQED studio. "The beat is quite fast because I'm quite sort of excited," he explained somewhat apologetically.
But as Warp focused his mind, the rhythm receded and the notes got closer together. (You can hear the transition in this clip, below.)
As with the helicopter, the idea with the NeuroDisco is to train users to change their emotional state using what's called "neurofeedback." That allows you to see how your brain patterns are changing and then try to re-create them. It's a learning process that could train us over time to be more focused or relaxed, its promoters say.
Warp, who says he has always been an anxious person, wanted to create an environment where people could become more grounded, more "connected with their internal state."
He knows how funny that sounds, though. What about actually meditating, or just taking a walk? Do we really need more technology to help us relax?
"You're doing the same thing as a meditator, a Buddhist monk might do," Warp jokes. "But maybe we, in the West, need a device to do it."
Beyond meditation, these devices could be used for more than just helping you relax after a hard day. Some scientists see clinical applications ahead.
Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, thinks EEG games might one day help kids with attention problems learn to focus better.
Imagine, he says, a game that could help kids recognize when they're focusing and help them strengthen that ability.
"They put on a mobile EEG cap that helps guide the game so that it's challenging those [mental] processes that need the most help," Gazzaley says.
Technology may have made us more stressed and distracted. Maybe one day it'll be able to do the opposite as well.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
I'm looking at a headline from The Onion. A man watching football is pictured. The headline is: Defense Needs to Be More Physical, Reports Man Slumped on Couch for Past Five Hours. Well, if you're a couch potato, new devices on the market will allow you to use even less physical effort. That's thanks to high tech headgear that allows people to control objects with their minds. Amy Standen of KQED reports makers of these products say the idea is to train ourselves to become more focused.
JOHNNY LIU: OK. So this is the Mindwave Mobile.
AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: Johnny Liu, from the San Jose company Neurosky is holding up an EEG headset. EEG is short for electro encephalogram and it picks up patterns in the brain's electrical activity - like what happens during sleep, or an epileptic seizure. And some other things too.
LIU: How focused somebody is, how calm and relaxed somebody is.
STANDEN: In recent years, these headsets have gotten cheaper and easier to use. The Mindwave Mobile costs about a hundred dollars. And that opens up the possibility of connecting EEG headsets to consumer gadgets. Like the one Liu brought with him today. It's a toy called the Orbit Brain Controlled Helicopter - which pretty much describes it. It's about eight inches wide, with three small propellers. Liu straps on his headset and tries it out.
LIU: So I'm driving up my attention level past a certain point.
STANDEN: The more he concentrates, the higher the helicopter soars.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHIRRING)
LIU: And that will allow the helicopter...
STANDEN: And then crashes onto my face.
LIU: I'm so sorry.
STANDEN: Next, I'm up. Liu tells me to focus on the helicopter.
LIU: As if you actually had these had these telekinetic powers.
STANDEN: Which I clearly don't. It's not really working, is it? OK.
LIU: ...all the way.
STANDEN: You can't get frustrated with the helicopter because that's different from concentration. What works is to focus on just one thing, really concentrate on it. This amplifies what are called beta waves inside the brain, which are picked up by the EEG which in turn flies the helicopter.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHIRRING)
STANDEN: In my case, for about three seconds. There's another EEG gadget that works better, at least on the radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RICHARD WARP: The beat is quite fast because I'm quite sort of excited.
STANDEN: This is composer and inventor Richard Warp. And he designed a program called Neurodisco. It also connects to an EEG headset. But instead of flying a helicopter, a Neurodisco translates brain electrical patterns into music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STANDEN: At first the beat is heavy and the notes are kind of all over the place. But as Warp focuses his mind, the beat sort of recedes in the background. The notes are closer together, more shimmery. As with the helicopter, the idea here is to reach a deep meditative state. Warp says he's always been an anxious person. He wanted to feel more grounded. And that's part of what led him to work on this project.
WARP: I personally find it somewhat difficult to get into a relaxed state. What I was interested in doing is to create an environment where people can really commune with their internal state.
STANDEN: Commune with an internal state. You hear that kind of thing a lot in this industry. And at this, even Richard Warp has to laugh, because is more technology really the thing we need to help us relax?
WARP: You're doing the same thing as a meditator, a Buddhist monk might do. It's just we in the West maybe need a device to do it.
STANDEN: And it's true. You can't just tell everyone to go meditate.
ADAM GAZZALEY: A lot of people don't have access to that or they find it very difficult.
STANDEN: Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at University of California San Francisco, says you can even imagine EEG games one day helping kids with attention problems learn to focus better.
GAZZALEY: They put on a mobile EEG cap that helps guide the game so that it's challenging those processes that need the most help.
STANDEN: Technology helped get us into this mess, maybe technology can help get us out. For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.