A Brief Introduction to Neurogaming

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Neurogames are a new breed of games that make use of brain-computer interfaces (BCI); these games use electrical signals generated by the player’s body, from their muscle or brain surface activity, as input. All of these signals are collected using sensitive electrodes on the surface of whatever body part you want to collect data from. It’s up to the game designer (that is, you) to decide what kinds of inputs to use and what to use them for; and, right now, it’s a new frontier. Some games use sensors to read the player’s emotional states and change the game to fit. Nevermind, for example, is a horror game that uses electrocardiography (ECG) to track the player’s heart rate: the faster the player’s heart races, the harder the game becomes. Other games use sensors to pick up explicit “mental” commands. Son of Nor is a fantasy adventure game that uses electroencephalography (EEG) to track the player’s surface brain activity: players can cast magic by thinking about the spells they want to cast. This is, of course, only a small sample of the possibilities available to game designers.

Here are a few tools you can use to write neurogames of your own:

  • Thalmic Labs’ Myo is an armband that tracks forearm muscle activity. It can figure out when a user has made one of five recognized hand gestures, but there are more gestures on the way. A user can map hand gestures to almost anything she wants—from controlling a music player like iTunes to playing games like Minecraft. The most exciting feature of the Myo armband, however, is its ability to stream the raw data from the armband’s eight sensors and built-in gyroscope. Having access to this data is a potential boon for game developers; if you know how to interpret he data, you could use the data for fine-grained gesture control or perhaps even muscle fatigue. The Myo is only $200—a (relatively) low cost for users and developers.
  • Emotiv’s EPOC(+) and Insight are EEG headsets. They read the brain’s electrical activity to detect emotional states, facial expressions, and custom “mental” commands that users can train themselves to give. Emotiv was one of the first companies to release a consumer-level EEG headset, and they are still one of the leading manufacturer of headsets like these. Both the EPOC(+) and the upcoming Insight will stream raw sensor data, but the Insight will come with a relatively low price tag: $300 instead of an upper price of $500.
  • OpenBCI is an opensource, community-driven, hardware platform for brain-computer interfacing. The OpenBCI community has designed hardware, the OpenBCI board, that can read from many different kinds of sensors and for many different purposes. Since OpenBCI is an opensource project, all of the hardware designs and software that make OpenBCI tick are free to the public to distribute, modify, and improve as they like. The software used to read and display data from the OpenBCI board is written using Processing—a programming language used by artists create interactive art pieces. This is the most hacker/maker-friendly option of the bunch, and it comes at the price of $450.

Each of these devices comes with a supportive, and growing, community. Don’t be afraid to make use of their amassed knowledge, and—when you’re ready—don’t be afraid to push the boundaries of the technology as much as you can. Neurogaming is still quite new, and there is so much ground to cover, so dream big.