A startup has created the world’s first brain-controlled virtual reality game.
The VR game from Boston-based company Neurable lets you navigate and play along in a virtual worlds, controlling the experience using only your thoughts.
The company unveiled the interface this week at the SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles, inviting developers to create games for it.
‘Imagine the power of your mind in VR,’ Michael Thompson, the company’s VP, said in a Medium post ahead of the official unveiling.
‘You awake hanging upside down in a snowy cave to discover you’ve been captured by a hungry Wampa.’
‘Sighting your light saber laying just out of reach, you calm yourself, concentrate, and summon the power of the force to grab your weapon.’
‘You cut yourself free just in time to slay the fearsome predator.’
‘This dramatic close encounter is, of course, a famous scene from Star Wars…’
‘The advent of immersive computing promises to bring those fantasies closer to sensory reality than we’ve ever known.’
Neurable isn’t a gaming company, but rather it is building brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) required for mind control.
It’s designed the most common kind, which uses scalp electrodes to record electrical signals in the brain and software to translate those signals into commands for devices like robotic limbs.
But while other companies mostly use the EEG brainwave patterns associated with focused concentration or relaxation as control signals, Neurable is unique in how its software uses more specific event-related potentials.
These occur when the brain responds to a stimuli, thus allowing for an intention-based interaction method needed to control a game.
While there are a lot of different neural signals that can be used for BCI, event-related potentials can tell you what a person really cares about – and that’s how the game can understand what action someone wants to take in real time.
While future version could also incorporate brain signals related to imagined body movements, CEO Ramses Alcaide told Spectrum the current approaches to that technology ‘aren’t fit for consumer technology.’
‘We wanted to create a system that would require basically no training,’ he said.
‘You just tell the player to want something in the game world, and that’s all they need to do.’
Putting Neurable’s strap studded with seven electrodes into a headset – such as the HTC Vive – makes it possible to bring that technology to interactive games.
That’s how they’re doing it now for the short term, but the company is working to make the technology much sleeker.
‘We see headset manufacturers adding electrodes to their form factor and design, and licensing our software to make use of that capability.’
During the unveiling at the SIGGRAPH conference, the company demonstrated their gaming potential with a collaboration with Madrid-based VR company estudiofutur.
The game, called Awakening, lets you actively pick up objects, stop lasers and even turn a robot dog into a balloon using just your thoughts.
Your character is a child, and the premise revolves around waking up in a government lab and trying too escape – the random tasks give you clues for how to get out, much like the popular real-life immersive game ‘Escape The Room’ that’s grown popular in big cities.
‘It’s a completely hands-free experience, you don’t use any controllers,’ said Alcaid.
He said he’s seen an ‘amazing response.’
‘A lot of people come in highly skeptical, because BCI has been a disappointment so many times before.’
‘But as soon as they grab an object, there’s a smile that comes over their faces.’
‘You can see the satisfaction that it really works.’
Currently, the company is looking to go commercial by entering VR arcades in 2018, with Awakenings being the first game they’ll implement.
The most difficult challenge associated with the technology, according to Alcaide, is accurately and responsively interpreting a user’s intention.
‘It’s been 13 years of my life’s work, and the technology is now finally ready to be used in a consumer product,’ said Alcaide, who has a PhD in neuroscience.
There are a lot of specifics to deal with for this specific technology – for example, the electrodes to be positioned in certain areas.
‘We have a scientific basis for what we do,’ he said.
‘The standard thing most companies do is record lots of stuff from the brain and hope they get enough data to make their devices work.’
Alcaide decided to look into using the technology for VR and AR because what ‘VR lacks right now is a hands-free mouse.’
‘We’ve essentially created a brain mouse,’ he said.
‘We’re going to be the interaction method that allows for ubiquitous VR and AR,’ he said.
But while he says gaming is the most exciting application of the technology, the most valuable would be a UX/UI platform.
‘Right now, if you try to do anything like typing or dealing with high density data in virtual reality, it doesn’t work well,’ he said.
‘But BCI will allow VR to become that computing platform.’
The company has raised $2 million from investors, and that was before they began working with VR headsets.
While only working with the HTC Vive currently, the company is focused on getting it built into existing headsets, targeting VR arcades and getting developers to produce games for the platform.
‘We wouldn’t have been able to raise a penny if our technology didn’t work well.’