Mind reading is on the market


Charlatans and con artists have laid claim to its power for centuries. In science fiction, Jedi knights call it “the Force,” and the mind-bending X-Men (and Women) are old hats at it.

Telekinesis. Harnessing the mind to control your surroundings. It is the stuff of fantasy.

Now, that fantasy is crystallizing into reality.

An array of new consumer products — including electronics, toys, medical devices and smart-phone apps — are designed to be operated by mental power.

Two games, which flew off the shelves last Christmas season, are based on technology that reads brain waves, similar to electroencephalograph — or EEG — machines used to diagnose brain disorders.

Both games — Mattel’s $80 Mindflex and the $130 Force Trainer by Uncle Milton Industries — work by having players wear headsets that monitor the electrical waves coming from their brains. By simply concentrating, or relaxing, players can control the operation of fans, which then push small balls through obstacle courses.

Leslee Lukosh didn’t believe it, until she saw it. The 47-year-old art teacher from Portland, Ore., said her two sons, ages 10 and 12, pressed her to buy the Mindflex game.

“I thought no way is that going to work,” Lukosh said. “It’s ridiculous!”

The game soon proved addictive. “My boys couldn’t stop playing with it,” Lukosh said. “My husband couldn’t believe it. And then none of us could stop playing it.”

Stanley Yang isn’t surprised.

“That’s everyone’s initial reaction to the technology: It doesn’t work. It can’t work. Telekinesis is just something in the movies,” said Yang, chief executive of NeuroSky, the San Jose company that provides the operating system for both the Mattel and Uncle Milton games. “And telekinesis in its pure form is really impossible. But this technology is as close as you will get.”

Indeed, the ability to move objects with mind power alone — as in Stephen King’s “Carrie” and countless other works of fiction — is still fantasy.

“It may be amusing as a consumer device,” said Gerald Loeb, a professor of biomedical engineering at USC. “You could compare it to the biofeedback fad 30 years ago. It’s getting its 15 minutes of fame, but eventually people will get more realistic about what its limitations are.”

For now, consumer product companies see opportunity.

Honda Motor Co. is among the automakers spending research dollars on mind-control features.

“If you have a lot of groceries, wouldn’t it be convenient if you could think, ‘Open up trunk,’ and the trunk would open?” spokesman David Iida said. “These are all possible applications to everyday life.”

Last year, Toyota Motor Corp. crafted a wheelchair that operates by measuring brain waves, using its own proprietary technology. Think left or right, and the chair will obey — although to stop, users must puff their cheeks.

The technology looks especially promising for improving prosthetic limbs. Last month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the Defense Department, awarded up to $34.5 million to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to begin testing mind-controlled prosthetics on quadriplegic patients.

“Just imagine a wheelchair with a couple of arms attached to the sides,” said project manager Michael McLoughlin. The goal is to soon refine and produce artificial limbs guided by brain commands that are precise enough to button shirts and perform complicated household chores, he said.

Sega Toys Co., part of gaming giant Sega Sammy Holdings, and electronics heavyweight Toshiba Corp. are both partnering with NeuroSky to create games with a telekinetic element. “Final Fantasy” developer Square Enix Holdings Co. showed off Judecca in 2008, a demo game in which players must meditate to see and slay zombie hordes.

Next year, Iceland-based game developer MindGames will roll out Tug of Mind, the Apple App Store’s first mind-controlled game, which also works with a NeuroSky headset.

The game tests the player’s ability to stay cool under pressure. After uploading a headshot — of a boss, an ex-boyfriend or a mother-in-law, say — the photo is turned into an angry avatar who screams prerecorded insults (or the annoying message of your choice). The avatar is soothed if the player remains calm; do so long enough, it eventually smiles and the game is won.

“The aim is to make the kind of games with this tech that you couldn’t make any other way,” said MindGames co-founder Deepa Iyengar.

NeuroSky is one of the big players in the nascent industry. The company, which has fewer than 50 employees, started with funding from angel investors in 2006. Starting the next year, it received its first round of venture capital funding from San Francisco-based WR Hambrecht & Co., Japan-based Marubeni Corp. and Taiwan-based TUVC. So far, the company says it has received nearly $19 million in backing from investors.

The company’s breakthrough was in harnessing the brain-wave technology found in EEG machines costing $20,000 and up into headsets that consumers could afford.

NeuroSky traces its origins to two scientists, Alexander Kaplan of Lomonosov Moscow State University and Jongjin Lim from South Korea, who became acquainted in the 1990s as fellow researchers studying mind-control technology.

According to company lore, the genesis for a consumer version came when Lim’s daughter turned up her nose at remote-controlled cars and asked her dad to make a mind-controlled version.

“I’m sure his daughter just said it and then forgot it, like kids do all the time,” said Lim’s colleague, KooHyoung Lee, NeuroSky’s chief technology officer. “But Jongjin is a scientist and kind of a nerd, and that question started him thinking.”

In 2004, Lim and Lee pulled up stakes and moved to Silicon Valley, where they eventually hooked up with Yang and lined up venture capital investment.

NeuroSky simplified the brain-wave reading technology down to a single dry sensor pressed on the forehead; combined with reference points that look like dime-sized buttons on one ear pad, the headset can read relevant brain signals while filtering out noise, including blinking and electrical activity from outlets.

In addition to selling technology to Mattel and Uncle Milton, NeuroSky sells its own version of mind-reading headsets. For this Christmas season, it will market the Mindwave, a $99 PC-compatible headset along with a suite of three to six games.

Steve Koenig, an industry analyst at the Consumer Electronics Assn., said that although the potential appeal of brain-controlled products is vast, the devices need a “killer app” to jump-start wide consumer acceptance.

Enthusiasts are confident that a big hit is just around the corner — and will probably spread beyond games.

“We will see more and more products in the future that have this technology, whether for entertainment or healthcare or safety,” said Lee Ting, a managing partner at WR Hambrecht, one of the venture capital firms that backed NeuroSky. “This isn’t limited to very narrow applications or markets — even we can’t foresee all the possible applications.”