It felt a little strange the first time I put it on. The battery pack on the headset was light as the single AAA inside, but its square weight ove my ear wasn’t, like, uncomfortable? Just maybe unnatural. Once I got the Neurosky Mindwave Mobile set up, though—and started controlling my computer with my brain—it was sort of very awesome. Actually kind of totally awesome.
The Mindwave Mobile is the first Brain Computer Interface (BCI) controller to work on Android and iOS as well as Mac and PC. Unlike the company’s previous first: The First Affordable BCI Headset, the $99 Mindwave, the Mobile version uses Bluetooth to wirelessly communicate with your computer. The active tech about it is a dry sensor that reads changes in the brain’s electrical activity like what’s up with Electroencephalograms (EEG). Traditional EEGs would need an electrically conducive goop smear where sensor meets scalp. Which, obviously, what a pain, right?
Right. Okay, so it’s easy—enough—to use. Even though sometimes it would slip on my head and whatever I’d been doing would be suddenly not done. And what was I doing, you ask? Well there’re a few games bundled up with the unit. A title called Zombie Pop was surprisingly fun. Basically one of those carnival games where you shoot water in a clown’s mouth till a balloon pops. Except you inexplicably work in some sort of Zombie factory, and they’re coming down a conveyor line, and instead of water you have to focus your brain might towards inflating their ugly green heads. When they get big enough you blink and a needles swings down and pops their heads like…like…like flesh balloons at a Zombie Carnival, I suppose.
No. It wouldn’t be fun save for the fact that—yes—the controls are your damn brain! WTF? The Mindwave Mobile reads two mental states, attentive or meditative, and eye blinks. So. If you can imagine if early Nintendo had first released a console whose controller was a d-pad with only two directions and then a single button, and you’re a game developer and they ask you to make a game and you’re, all, “Well, sure, man. I can make that game, but have y’all consid—” But they say just do it, and so you do, then now you understand the limitations of the games available for the Mindwave. Though it does sort of surprise me that no Pong clone is available yet. Since that’s probably exactly what our hypothetical game designer would have come out with.
Maybe the issue there is that switching your mental state isn’t so easy as thumbing a joystick. See, for me it was super easy to hit the ‘meditative’ state where you’re not quite focused on any one thing (this will come as no surprise to my teachers in elementary school), but, for my roommate who helped me test the headset, he could snap into ‘attentive’ no problem. The brief tutorial advised me to try thinking of song lyrics in my head so that I’d be focused on something. This works. But, of course, when one is thinking of lyrics one is not thinking about playing a game.
Even this petty hardship though has some benefit—and until some more engaging titles are dropped this might be the best justification for paying $130 for the Mindwave Mobile—because, when you actively switch your focus on and off with this sort of direct feedback over and over, it becomes easier to do each time. It really does. After a few sessions of Zombie Pop I no longer had to invoke Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now—the only song I could conjure at the time—and really started laying waste to some zombie domes, as though some stunted mental mage, with my brain forces alone.
Some developers have tried to exploit this direct feedback with educational apps—like Imagercize ($6), Math Trainer ($0), and Focus Pocus($149?!)—designed to help students understand what it feels like to be in their best mental state. The potential for this is great. Like, drop the Ritalin, kids. Learn to tighten your thinking caps instead.
If I were the future billionaire who figured out how to market BCI headsets like the Mindwave Mobile my calendar would be all power brunches with SAT prep centers. That’s what’s up.
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[Article written for and published by NYPress.com]