Emotiv Project Epoc: Sensory Gaming Developed Through Research on Schizophrenic Mice

Emotiv is a company I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more about soon. It made news yesterday with a formal announcement of its Project Epoc, a developmental technology that interpolates electrical signals emitted by the brain and converts them into actions on a computer. I had been communicating with Emotiv going into GDC and as fate would have it, my meeting was scheduled for shortly after the press release began to circulate.

First let me give you a little perspective on the landscape of brainwave measuring controllers. For a long time I have imagined a day when gaming would be controlled by body motion suits, brainwave headsets, all the stuff you wish you had from your favorite Sci-Fi film. Over the years I’ve seen and experienced a multitude of products that made claims similar, or identical, to Emotiv and its Epoc. Given those experiences, I was quite skeptical entering our meeting yesterday morning morning.

The prototype device looks sort of like a smaller version of Professor X’s Cerebro mutant locator thing. It’s a headset with three separate arms than clasp around your head. Each arm contains myriad sensors that detect signals fired within the brain. In its current form, wires jut from the device, making it look like some kind of crazed science project. I’m told that the product will undergo a complete streamlined makeover before it goes to market, which I think is almost bittersweet. The final headset will look cool no doubt, but I’m a fan of its garage look.

Professor X uses Cerebro

Its appearance is inconsequential though — the real magic can’t be seen. Actually, it can be seen, just not by looking at the headset. To appreciate the capabilities of the device, takes experiencing it in action. As I mentioned before, I walked into the meeting skeptical of Emotiv’s ability to perform. Nothing personal, it’s just a “fool me once…” policy. I was wrong. In contrast to previous products claiming to do the same thing, the Epoc is built on some very heady hard-science that we’ll get to that later.

The Emotiv Epoc performed admirably in its currently limited battery of tests. For example, in company simulations, face movements were duplicated on-screen with precise detail. The wearer can blink specifically and position his or her mouth into precise formations: grimacing, smiling, etc. — they’re all possible. That’s simple stuff though, or so I’m told.

The impressive parts come later on. The Epoc can interpret great deal of more convoluted data and reproduce its effects keenly. If, for instance, you’re in a game, thoughts can be projected to control various elements of the game. On demo was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. With the Epoc , players can currently cast spells and move items by simply thinking about them. The game still requires the controller for movement, but I’m told that it isn’t that theEpoc can’t make players move, it’s just that using a controller adds a physical dynamic to the game; an extra dimension if you will. I think that’s useful. Games are just starting to get to a point that they can be considered exercise. All we need is a brainwave helmet that requires absolutely no movement. We’ll be a species of sloths, for reals.

By far the most intricate part of the system though, is its ability to recognize emotions. At this point the developer’s software that I saw only displays interpretations of excitement. It can recognize immediate excitement and excitement across a plane. This information has a whole slew of implications for in-game utilization. Imagine a game where a heartbeat started pounding away when it detected your level of excitement. You’d have to cognitively slow your thoughts to suppress the heartbeat to hear the other game sounds better (my idea by the way, I expect royalties). They were unwilling to discuss other emotions that the device can interpret, but I managed to glean a few other ideas.

Emotiv Epoc in action. It’s not actually necessary to make movements, but it illustrates the functions.
Company co-founder Tan Le explained that games would be able to actively adjust difficulty based on the data spewing from the player’s brain. There are a lot of possibilities here. I questioned whether this meant that the device could sense frustration. CPO RandyBreen responded, “That’s an interesting idea.” He refused to comment further.

The technology was come across in a roundabout sort of way. While scouring relevant patents, Patent Monkey discovered US Patent 7038105, the sole filing from Emotiv. It was acquired in 2005 by a team of researches that included Tan Le and another Emotiv co-founder Nam Do.

The patent involves a study that sought to examine stimuli responses in schizophrenia in mice — the thought being that schizophrenics respond differently to stimuli. These mice were modified to suppress EDG2, a protein whose absence causes schizophrenia. EDG2 elevates when exposed to a stimulus, but since schizophrenics don’t respond properly to stimuli, this doesn’t work as necessary.

The mice attached to sensory detectors, fed drugs and placed in stimulation chambers. The thought was that the combination of drugs and stimuli would achieve desired levels of EDG2 and remedy the signs of schizophrenia. It worked, but it also demonstrated that brain signals could be measured with surprising effectiveness when exposed to a lot of stimuli (read: video games). And that’s the impetus of Emotiv.

So we have a gaming device that reads human brainwaves as a result of studies on schizophrenic mice. The question is when will Emotiv put its product on shelves. The current goal is to hit market in late 2008. That’s plenty of time to hone the product and get game developers on board. It’s also plenty of time to vaporize — something that happens all too often. Responsibility for getting the product to stores rests heavily on the shoulders of Randy Breen, an industry veteran with plenty of experience in getting products out. Breen worked at Electronic Arts in the ’80s where he successfully launched the Road Rash series and then had problems with Jane’s Combat Simulations. Since departing EA, Breen has had considerable success at Lucas Arts. So I guess the answer is two-fold: The team is certainly eclectic and capable, but these things also take a degree of luck.

That said, I like what I saw and wish Emotiv the best.

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