Eric Johnson

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Mind Games: Will Brain Power Be the Future of Play?


Photo courtesy NeuroGaming Conference & Expo

Touchscreens? Seen ’em! The Wiimote? Old news! Gamepads? Please.

In San Francisco this week, a nonprofit group dedicated to neurogaming — the intersection of brain science and videogame playing — is taking its turn at bat in predicting the next wave of game-changing technology.

The conclusion of the NeuroGaming Conference and Expo’s organizers, unsurprisingly, is that hardware and software that monitor and respond to your body’s electrical and chemical signals will do for games what synchronized sound did for movies. Zack Lynch, CEO of the neurotech industry’s trade group, said the end goal is to create a new, deeper category of games.

Speakers and expositioners all had their own takes on how to reach that goal, including (just to name a few):

  • “Mind-reading” headsets with sensors that attach to the ear and forehead
  • Smooth, unassuming touchscreens that provide haptic (touch) feedback
  • Headphones that convert low-frequency bass sounds — think explosions in an action game — into physical vibrations
  • Neurotech integrations with much-discussed emerging wearable technologies like Google Glass and the Oculus Rift
  • Experimental sensors that could estimate a player’s emotional state by, for instance, calculating the pH of their sweat.

But questions about the technology’s future abounded throughout the first day of the conference on Wednesday. At the root of all their caveats was a single point of potential failure: those pesky consumers.

“Most consumers are not going to put down their hard-earned money” for experimental one-time-use gadgets, NeuroSky CEO Stanley Yang said. “There has to be lasting value.”

(Yang should know: his company’s first consumer product, the Star Wars Force Trainer, was a $130 ping pong ball-levitating device … batteries not included.)


Photo courtesy NeuroGaming Conference & Expo

And the neurotech industry may even need to reconsider its vocabulary, said Chris Petrovic, the former general manager of GameStop’s “Digital Ventures” arm.

“Regardless of how we define it, keep the consumers in mind,” Petrovic said in a venture capital-focused panel about investing in the technology. “Don’t call this ‘the next great neurogaming platform’ or ‘neurogaming device,’ because it won’t sell.”

Those terms, he explained, connote an invasion of one’s body and may seem scary to those unfamiliar with the technology — that is, almost everyone.

A few of the speakers and numerous attendees (Lynch said about 300 registered for the conference online) suggested that the best immediate hope for brain-powered technology is not consumer gaming at all, but rather improvements in the places where it has already succeeded, like clinical therapy for those with limited mobility or as a teaching aide for children with mental disorders like ADHD.

The problem is that most brain-training games are just, well, boring, said Petrovic’s fellow panelist Roger Quy, a general partner at Technology Partners. A popular refrain throughout the day was that without great content, all attempts at neurogaming would be doomed to the same fate as 3-D TV, which fizzled despite enormous hype and investment.

Union Square associate Nate Hennings added that games targeted at a niche of enthusiasts may prove to be a testing ground for the mass viability of neurotech, just as the Tesla Roadster laid the groundwork for cheaper versions of the electric cars.

The dream, though, is that one of the companies represented at the conference will come up with a device that immediately “clicks” with consumers, as the Wiimote did starting back in 2006. To that end, perhaps the most important axiom to measure future brain gaming products’ success came out of Yang’s appearance earlier in the day.

“What happens to the consumer when they open up the box?” Yang asked. “Are they able to plug it in and start having fun instantly? If you can’t deliver that, nobody will jump in.”

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik