Games meet brains: the new immersive tech of gaming

From joysticks to gamepads and now gesture recognition, gaming has been downsizing the gadgets over the decades, and it is getting close to tapping into the ultimate controller: your brain. About 300 people gathered to learn about and test the latest neurogaming tech at the eponymously named conference and expo in San Francisco this week, and many an attendee was outfitted like they belonged to the Borg. Besides the “neuro” side of the tech offerings, haptics technology — involving devices that stimulate the touch or body sense — was also well-represented.

The majority of exhibitors were peddling tech to monitor brain waves, and it seemed like EEG (electroencephalography) headsets were available in every color, shape, and size, from sleek Google Glass-like headbands to traditional electrode-laden caps. Since the measured waves represent the activity of the whole brain, it’s not possible for the devices to literally read your mind; you can’t, for example, move left or right in a game just by thinking it (yet). However, because some wave activity is associated with alertness, games like Intific’s NeuroStorm can incorporate the user’s extra focus into gameplay. Sustained concentration can also be used to launch and fly Puzzlebox’s Orbit helicopter. If you want to stimulate your brain rather than just read it, has a headband that supposedly increases focus while playing.

Electroactive polymers — perhaps the base material for future shapeshifting phones — are being used to deliver enhanced touch and feel to gaming in Bayer MaterialScience’s Vivitouch technology. The thin film can minutely expand and contract, so that when attached to a gamepad the player can feel blasts and receive force-feedback. Vivitouch will be launching a new product at E3 in June. Tactile Haptics’ Reactive Grip is like a Wiimote on steroids that lets you feel like you’re really gripping, firing, or wielding weapons, but it’s still a tethered device.

Noticeably absent were offerings in the augmented reality or facial tracking space. Predictions about where neurogaming is headed from a few of the conference’s speakers included integrating data from wearable and smartphone sensors to enhance gameplay, and artificial intelligence-modulated games that could, for example, level the playing field between beginners and grandmasters in chess.

For mass adoption, of course, the “tech” can’t be too technical. That’s why smell and sound-driven game experiences are under development, to appeal to the limbic brain in all of us.

Image via NeuroGaming Conference and Expo