GDC08: Emotiv 'brain control' headset shows its kinks


"I think we found a bug," mocked an audience member during an embarrassing lapse in the presentation, one of countless hiccups that marred Emotiv's would-be grand unveiling of the "world's first consumer 'Brain Computer Interface'" (not "Brain Control Interface," as the press invite alluringly stated). Spunky CEO Nam Do kicked things off with a burst of energy, firing off adjectives like "super cool" and "uber-cool" to describe his company's 'next generation human-machine,' a conscious and non-conscious processor with a three-part 'total communication' interface: affectiv, expressiv and cognitiv. Clearly, something was missing.

Nam explained that the machine could read feeling and emotion, things that "distinguish us from humans ... er, computers!" An assistant, Marco, entered stage right sporting Emotiv's neuro-headset, a mess of tentacled sensors wrapped around his temple, as Nam introduced Marco's virtual counterpart, Emobot. A robot head with a cute, round face began to mimic Marco's facial expressions on a large screen behind Nam. "Look cute, look cute," goaded Nam, and Marco and the Emobot responded, blinking their eyes and pursing their lips. Emobot followed along for a few more moments before freezing up -- and it was onto the next demonstration.

Nam pressed Marco to "think of something, and make it happen" by manipulating a three-dimensional cube now occupying the center screen. A simple 'zoom' command seemingly worked, but when told to mind-push the cube along multiple axes, Marco failed. "Weak mind, weak mind," teased Nam, warding off the inevitable tension. He filled the pause with pseudo-science, something about electrical impulses converted into an image of thought within a roughly 90,000-dimensional space. (90,000 dimensions? Had we heard that right?) Marco was still squeezing his eyes shut, carefully molding thoughts with his hands. Still nothing ... and then ... the cube spun briefly to life.

"You feeling okay to do the risky one?" Nam asked. (No, it was not a question.)

Marco was focusing again ... still straining ... trying to will the cube to disappear. "Performance anxiety," joked Nam, "just press a button, come on." The laughs faded into silence as minutes passed. Nam paced, Marco curled his brow. Finally! The cube was gone.

The tension carried over into the nerves of Lori Washbon, director of design, as she struggled through detailing the EPOC headset, adjusting her slipping shoulder strap, sometimes strutting the stage with wayward poses. The big breakthrough: no more gel! The sensors are made from a proprietary material that takes EEG readings without the messy cleanup. And a lithium polymer battery adds 12 hours of goop-free usage. "A new 'epoc' in man to machine interface."

An urgent request followed: Please switch off your mobile phones, they're interfering with our wireless ... (Yikes!)

"Can we do it without the headset?" Nam whispered into his mic from off-stage. Producer Zachary Drake had hopped up to demonstrate the game, developed in partnership with Demiurge Studios. (Each headset will ship with this tech demo, call it: Emotiv's 'Wii Sports.') "Welcome to demo hell, folks!" Drake grinned, clutching a wireless Xbox 360 controller. Drake began navigating through the game, a "cloud-top temple," pausing at certain points, asking us to imagine what would occur had he been wearing the neuro-headset, twisting and stretching his face into hypothetical game commands. What irony! He chased off a swarm of glowing demon spirits, lifted a giant boulder and transformed the sky from serene green to a "brilliant orange" -- all in our minds!

After Drake's brave presentation, Nam returned to rush through a series of announcements:

  • EmoKey -- "mind control for existing PC games"; keyboard emulation software that maps actions onto the headset; "If you are Jedi, you have the real force," teased Nam.

  • The SDK will be open standard; available to developers free from Emotiv's website

  • IBM partnership; Michael Rowe, an IBM "3D Internet Champion," is looking to implement Emotiv's game tech "for real business usage."

Finally, Nam offered a peek at "something we are not supposed to show." The Portal. (No, not that kind, silly.) The guy who helped design Minority Report's (imaginary) pre-crime interface joined Nam to show a preview of a prototype web portal using concepts based on Emotiv's technology. Through gesturing and mood states, users can navigate a futuristic 'media city,' according to the videos. Still, did this beat a simple point and click?

Nam sheepishly closed by revealing an optimistic target release date in "holiday 2008" and a $299 price tag for the neuro-wonder EPOC. "May the force be with you -- it's not with me today ... but it's the thought that counts."

[Follow-up: Emotiv's PR issued a brief statement which linked the technical disaster to the AV crews headsets. "The sound crew's AV headsets use a very high power, frequency-hopping, spread-spectrum technology which is not found in consumer devices or home wireless set-ups."]