Written By: Don “VRGamerDude” Hopper
Over the years I have researched and experienced a lot of strange (and sometimes outright bizarre) VR tech, but earlier this year I had the opportunity to check something out that was beyond even my wildest sci-fi dreams: playing a VR game using nothing more than the power of my mind. As I was setting everything up, I thought for sure that it was going to be some kind of gimmick, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. After a brief calibration system, I tested a few 2D applications.
Cutting Edge VR: Brain Control Interfaces
It didn’t take long before I knew that this was a technology with a lot of potential. The demos let me change television channels, make music and even play a simple 2D platformer game. The feeling was magical with every experience. Obviously, I wanted something a little more than 2D, so after the demos, I tried it in VR. In that first instant, I felt a sensation of presence that was different than anything else I had ever experienced in my 25 years of experimenting with virtual reality. I felt like some kind of superhero, using my newfound telekinetic powers to battle alien
invaders, destroying them with simply the power of my gaze and thoughts. I was exploding aliens through sheer willpower alone. The initial experience left my mind racing for all of the possibilities that this technology could bring to VR gaming and beyond. It was definitely something that I wanted to experience again and in many different applications.
The technology behind it has been around for a while now, but has only recently started to creep out of the world of clinical research and neuroscience and into consumer electronics. Currently, a few companies are working on ways to integrate the “Brain Control Interface”, more commonly
known as “BCI” technology, into VR headsets.
Valve Explores BCI Applications for Immersive VR
Probably the most known (and exciting) company to recently announce their interest in the BCI space is Valve: In February, Gabe Newell revealed that Valve was exploring the use of brain-computer interfaces for gaming and other applications.
He announced that Valve had entered a partnership with OpenBCI, which provides an open-source platform for applications related to BCIs, and Tobii, a leader in the eye-tracking space. Together, these companies are looking into the possibilities of what neurotech like BCIs can bring to the next generation of immersive VR games and experiences. They plan to incorporate it all into a system called Galea - a combination of both hardware and software that incorporates next-generation biometric data. Galea is the first BCI that integrates various electrical biosignals (such as EEG, EMG, EOG, EDA, and PPG) as well as eye-tracking into a single headset that will have the ability to interface with the Valve Index to provide BCI for high-quality virtual reality experiences.
NextMind On The Forefront of BCI Gaming
The Galea is still in its early stages currently but is expected to be introducing a beta sometime in 2022. If you’re more interested in the “here and now” of the future, then NextMind has been working on its own BCI solutions for a while. Currently, NextMind is producing a Developer Kit available for anyone interested in the technology for $299. However, the device would be pretty limited to a few tech demos available in the launcher unless you know how to develop in Unity. Still, even the small sampling of what is possible that NextMind opened my eyes to the possibilities that a device like this can bring, not only to VR games, but also use cases for aiding people with mobility issues, or even just letting me be lazy and not have to search for the remove buried in my couch cushions to change the channel on the TV.
NextMind’s sci-fi brain-reading technology works by using a wearable device to read signals residing in the user’s visual cortex, and then translating them into in-game or in-app actions. The difference between NextMind’s approach, vs something like the Galea system, is that NextMind has users focusing on specific flashing pattern-based visual neuro tags that are placed throughout the experiences, and relies only on impulses from the visual cortex to activate, without using conventional eye-tracking.
However, a drawback to this method of BCI is that it is dependent on the user being able to focus clearly on the flashing tags. While I found it easy enough to activate the tags once I got used to focusing on them and concentrating, I noticed that if I tried to use the device without my glasses on (or if I outright closed my eyes) that I wasn’t able to properly focus on the neuro tags and the device didn’t work at all. Still, even though the NextMind is essentially purely sight-based, it did make me feel like I had to also concentrate on performing the task, although that was probably just a placebo response.
There has been some debate whether this method could be truly considered brain control since instead you have to not just think about what you want the system to do, but also focus on an object to make the magic happen. Some argue that it is too similar to traditional eye-tracking. Still, since this system relies on reading electrical impulses from the user’s brain taken directly from the visual cortex, the NextMind, in my opinion, is a true BCI.
Limitless Possibilities For Headset Integration
Either way, I’ve never had an eye tracker that made me feel like Professor X! Using a BCI and VR headset together was one of the coolest feelings I have had in VR to date. VR headsets have already come so far in the past few years, and they just keep getting better. Each new generation adds updated technologies to enhance the VR experience even further. Soon, we will see the integration of both eye-tracking and BCIs into VR headsets. I can already picture a future where BCI tech is a standard feature on all VR headsets with tons of games and apps built around it as a control method.
Only time will tell if we will all be controlling the metaverse with our minds; all I can say is that after getting a small taste of VR mind control, I want more!
This article was originally published in the September issue of VR Trend Magazine, a bi-monthly publication that gives a voice to the VR community. Visit our Patreon page to subscribe to the print or digital edition. To become an investor in VR Trend Magazine, visit our Kickstarter page.