One of the big hits this GDC was the announcement of Emotiv Systems' upcoming brain / PC interface, a technology that could change the way we all use the computer. People queued from the Emotiv Booth out the door to give this technology a shot.
The good folks even found time to also participate in our Accessibility Arcade, allowing people to try it out from an accessibility vantage point.
Further, the President of Emotiv sat down with us on the floor behind the booth where she, our friend Mark Sumerix, and myself had a chat about what all the commotion is about.
After the interview AbleGamers got a chance to try it out for ourselves, and it was sweet.
Mark Barlet, AbleGamers.com - When we announced that AbleGamers was going to GDC, we had a few members of the site send emails and post on the forum about "this thing" out there from Emotiv; they wanted us to find out more. So I really want to thank you for this opportunity to talk to you. I am also joined by Mark Sumerix who we met here at our Accessibility in Gaming gathering and I invited him to come along with us. It's a technology that he has not heard of I thought he would love to see it as well.
TL - Le, President of Emotive - Fantastic, welcome!
MB - So Mark, if you want to introduce yourself that would be great.
Mark Sumerix, AbleGamer - Hi, My name is Mark Sumerix, I am a game developer.
TL - Glad to meet you.
MB - So we have seen a little of your product in action. Tell us a little bit about it and what your thoughts are when you think about a disabled gamer?
TL - So Emotiv is a nero engendering company and what we have been able to create is a framed computer interface that allows machines tap directly into the brain and pick up the electrical activity, and by doing so detect three categories of input: facial expression, affective [response], which is your emotional experience, and cognitive [response], which is this fantasy of being able to move objects with your mind. That's what we've been able to do. Just by tapping into signals in the brain.
MB - What are you tapping into exactly?
TL - So the brain is made up of billions of active neurons. When the neurons interact with each other electrical impulses are emitted. What we do by using this set of sensors is really pick up the fluctuations or patterns eminating from the brain. We pick that up just from the surface of the scalp. Then we have these really supper complex mathematical processing algorithms that basically try to determine what it is you are thinking or what it is your expressing, or what it is you are experiencing at that time.
MB - When I saw this in action, I was pretty excited to see what Emotiv was able to do. What is the device itself called?
TL - It is called the Emotiv Epoch headset.
MB - So you could train it to say, "This is what, in my mind, picking up this object looks like to me."
TL - Exactly. We found when we did the pure research with the collection of all this data-gathering, there were a lot of correlations between [individuals] in the way signals are portrayed from an EEG standpoint. There there are also enough differences that--in order to optimize the algorithm for your own particular use--[we need to do] a quick "brain syncing," that's what we call it. That is you telling the machine, "This is how I think of push," or, "This is how I think of move left." From that, it learns, and captures that as pattern recognition. So every time you do that same thought again, it is able to categorize that as, "Ah! You are trying to lift."
MB - So are you seeing this as a gaming device? Where do you see this sitting on the market?
TL - We see it as an interface. So essentially, anything that involves a human and machine, this product that can revolutionize how that interaction takes place. But we're starting with the game industry--
MB - Because you know where the money is.
TL - Yeah. It is an early adopter market. The game industry dynamics is ripe for this type of technology, because graphics have really fueled innovation in games for such a long time. We are 20 years from pong, but in the last several years we have seen interaction in games, new ways to interact with content. It's driving the industry forward, so I think the timing is right. Lastly, this idea of brain control, that is the ultimate fantasy for every gamer.
MB - We have been promised that for the last 30 years.
TL - Exactly. So we are really excited about this market as a starting point, but that does not mean that we are exclusive to games. We are working with a range of developers across the world in all sorts of different areas so they can actually apply the technologies to their unique applications.
MB - One of the things you said at your launch party; you had this technology to map a thought to a keystroke...
TL - Emotiv-Key.
MB - Emotiv-Key. So my question about that is, would that allow me to take a game I already have, something already on the market, and use this technology? What is the response time on that, how much do I need to be thinking about this, or how long do I need to be thinking about it before it is registered as a keystroke?
TL - Basically, the way we see Emotiv-Key working is that it can allow you the opportunity to use it, essentially as a keyboard emulator. So instead of using a keyboard to [initiate] an action, changing that to an action on the headset. So in World of Warcraft, to be dancing or smiling, instead of going to 'select,' 'emotion,' 'smile,' you can just map 'smile' to 'smile.' Then it is totally natural, the next time you want to smile, or laugh out loud, like every time you do something, or you have done something bad and you want to wicked laugh, you can just laugh out loud, and your character can do the same. It is just immediate. [laughs]
MB - Mark, do you have any questions?
MS - Yes. Response time, like he said, without the queues, just the thinking: is it fast enough for a first person shooter game?
TL - The way we see it, every detection is different, so with a facial expression it is immediate, like ten milliseconds. It's super fast. For example, if you wanted to shoot somebody, instead of having to press a button, you could attach the firing to clench, because you could just go "GRRRRR" and kill off all your enemies. Cognitive actions, magic, that's more fulfilling the fantasy of magic. There is a little bit of a delay with cognitive, just because of the nature of the detection because we are looking at an image. We are working on improving that. It's more [suited to] games where you need to hold down a button and wait for a spell. So say, in a game like Harry Potter, where you need to rotate your wand in order to cast a spell, in this case, just think rotate, and it happens.
MB -And because you're allowed to teach the Epoch that your "rotate" my be different than my "rotate," may be different than Mark's rotate, we can train that to anything. This leads me to my next question, is this profile stored in my computer or it is stored--
TL - Yes, it is totally stored on your computer.
MB - So I can not just move the little USB attachment?
TL - The USB dongle. We are looking at making the USB dongle smart, but now it is just receiving the wireless signals from the headset.
MB - I am really excited about seeing this in action, and your team as extended an invitation to go and queue up and give it a try. Any thoughts you may have about accessibility?
TL - It has been something we have thought about from the very beginning. We thought it would be a really wonderful thing to do. The challenge for us as a small company when we first started out--you know, you get to a point in your company's life where you have to decide if you are going to be low volume/high cost, or high volume/low cost. We thought, "This technology is awesome; it can really revolutionize the way we could interact with machines. We need to find something that has a big mass market where we can actually get the investment base to fund the project to really get to a consumer price point. "By doing so we can make it more accessible to everyone. And that is why Michelle [Chair of the IDGA Game Accessibility Special Interest Group] approached us we said, "Absolutely, we want to work with you guys, let's do something."
MB - You all have been very supportive, and yes, I agree with you. This is one of the things I have always tried to say when reaching out to hardware people. I have never asked for something to be done ONLY for the disabled community, I have said--
TL - Have it in mind.
MB - Have it in mind as you are developing it. A simple tweak here or there takes something that is specific to the gaming market which, with a few minor modifications, can ALSO be used for another market.
TL - Yes, exactly. I could not agree with you more.
MB - We at AbleGamers have adapted things that were built for developers or graphic designers and said, "Have you ever thought that if you just take this thing and move it here, you can all of the sudden use this for someone with multiple sclerosis, CP, missing limbs, and other differences?"
Does anyone else have any questions?
MS - I have two, well one is not a question it is a comment. First, thinking about it means it is more immersive, I think about my character a lot more personally that just sitting at a keyboard. Secondly, are there any side effects to using the headset?
TL - We have found as we have played, that it offers 12 hours of continuous use, that's the battery life. We have played so much at the office that it is not a problem. EEG technology itself has been around, well, since the 50's. It's really safe to use; it's used a lot in medical applications. The device itself is FCC approved, UL Compliant, so it is going to adhere to all the guidelines to ensure it is safe to consumers.
MB - Interesting, because one of the side comments I heard as we left your launch party was from someone who said there was not any research on what kind of long-term effects this technology has. But from what I understand this is a "read only" type of technology.
TL - Yes, it is read only. Not only that, the fluctuations in the brain are so tiny that the whole system is designed to be so low-power--
MB - So you are just picking up what is already there, you are not adding anything to the mix?
TL - Yes ,we are reading what is being emitted from your brain. I mean, even if you are not doing anything with any of your senses, your brain is emitting all of these electrical impulses.
MB - You do not know how braindead I can be, after 4 days of GDC, holding this microphone up is taking all the brain cells I have. Do you see this coming out of the PC and into the--
TL - The console market? Yes, absolutely, it is part of our strategy. We are working with all those guys, and we are not ready to make those moves yet.
MB - How has the excitement been here at GDC?
TL - Awesome.
MB - Did Bill Gates come by?
TL - Well not Bill Gates, but we have had a LOT of people come by.
MB - You also have an SDK for this device so it can start being built into--
TL - Any application. In fact, last year when we announced that this company had a start, we had so much interest. The funny thing was, we developed the technology for the games industry, but we had interest from the automotive, robotics, market research, medical, education -- so many people. They said, "This is really great, why don't we open it up." So we made an announcement to open up the API's, SDK, the whole development platform. It is bundled with a headset emulator as well, so you don't even need the headset. It costs us money to send those out, so this way anyone--any indie developer that is interested in using the device--can just download the free software and make something. Then they can call us up and we can run a test session with the real device, or loan the equipment out, or license the hardware.
MB - So we expect this to be out Christmas of this year. How sure are you of making that date?
TL - Absolutely sure.
MB - With a price point of only $299?
TL - Yes.
MB - The rumor mill here at GDC says you are going to send AbleGamers one for us to review for free. [laughs]
TL - Absolutely!
MB - Now we got that on tape.
TL - Absolutely we would be more than happy to send you one.
MB - Thank you so much for your time.