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A Bonanza From Brain Waves?

Information Processing: COMPUTER SCIENCE


Relax, concentrate, and keep your eyes on the black ribbon of the racetrack. The joystick in your hand steers the motorcycle on the large projection screen. But the accelerator is your mind.

It may sound like unmitigated science fiction. But this cerebral racing game was on display in mid-June at a multimedia event sponsored by Apple Computer Inc. in New York. Manhattan-based IBVA Technologies Inc. developed the equipment--a wireless headband fitted with sensitive electrodes and some snazzy software--and sells a stripped-down version for about $1,000.

EMOTIONAL RESCUE. IBVA is one of a half dozen small companies pushing what could be the next wave of video game interfaces: devices that "read" subtle brain-wave activity. Hooked up to Macintoshes and personal computers, the new systems offer dazzling computer graphics of brain waves and are often bundled with games and learning exercises. IBVA's system, for instance, comes with an interactive film whose plot twists and turns in response to emotional cues from the viewer.

These systems hark back to the biofeedback movement of the 1970s. Then, experimenters wired to electroencephalograph (EEG) machines learned meditation-like exercises to control mental states. The technique involved studying and reproducing distinctive brain-wave patterns associated with different mind-sets--from relaxed "alpha" states to agitated "beta" rhythms. Advocates at the time said the exercises helped them relax and could relieve migraine headaches.

The biofeedback fad petered out. But brain research flourished in the meantime, while the cost of sensors, wireless components, and computer power plummeted. The result: scaled-down brain-wave devices for a fraction of the cost of hospital EEGs.

Some big computer companies are excited by the new interfaces. Apple executives are attracted by multimedia applications such as IBVA's. Joseph Cusumano, associate professor of engineering science at Pennsylvania State University, plans to use it to provide audience feedback in a student art exhibit. Combined with other computer technology, he says, "it could provide an incredibly rich palette." Japan's NEC Corp. is working on software that would let disabled people speak through computers, simply by thinking. Fujitsu Ltd. is also tackling "silent speech," studying how the brain's electrical signals change just before words are vocalized.

Plenty of rival systems are on the way. Monsoon Software Inc. and the AquaThought Foundation in Torrance, Calif. are testing a brain-wave reader that collects signals from 16 electrodes, and interprets them with programs that will run on Microsoft Corp.'s upcoming Windows 95 software. Once users have learned how to produce specific brain-wave patterns, "they can assign meaning to them, and program the computer to take action when a state is achieved," says Monsoon research director Sunil Gupta.

AGE OF THE NERVES. For several brain wave startups, EEG signals take a back seat to other, louder signals of the autonomic nervous system. BioControl Systems in Palo Alto, Calif., sells equipment that reads a range of signals, including pulse, blood pressure, and "galvanic skin response," which is the basis of polygraph tests. These signals, they say, provide the same window into mental and emotional states that EEG provides, and they boast greater reliability at a far lower cost.

This approach could get a big boost from a startup in Sausalito, Calif. called the Other 90%. (The name refers to the portion of the brain presumed to be underutilized by human beings.) Early next year, the company plans to market sleek finger pads with sensors tuned to the whole spectrum of autonomic responses, for less than $200. Plugged into a PC, the system tracks the user's subtle transitions in and out of relaxed or excited states. These changes function as on-off switches, letting the user navigate a slalom course on a digital ski slope, for example, simply by varying thought patterns.

Some experts are distressed by the elaborate claims of these brain-wave startups. Even if you could deduce mental patterns from finger sensors, "brainwaves are not specific enough" to reveal much about thoughts, says Emilio Bizzi, chairman of the Brain & Cognitive Sciences Dept. at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These systems "are the equivalent of snake oil." But that may not hurt sales, argues Columbia University neurologist Douglas R. Nordli Jr., who has seen the Other 90%'s technology. "It's interesting...and it's fun." That's all most game players will have on their minds.


Uses for the new technology

VIDEO GAMES By learning to switch back and forth between relaxed and agitated states, players can control the pace of racing and fighting games, freeing their hands for other functions.

MOVIES Brain-wave devices can be used in conjunction with movies and role-playing games, with the viewer's response determining how the action unfolds.

STRESS REDUCTION Brain-wave interfaces could be used to help induce relaxation and reduce stress. Eventually, the machines could be used as a treatment for manic depression.By Neil Gross in New York

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