Technology

How Mattel Can Get Into Your Head


The toy company and others are pioneering technology that links brainwaves to a computer—a feature that may soon be showing up in cars and the workplace

Mattel (MAT) plans to release a game called Mindflex Duel in August, which will let players move a ball through an obstacle course, using only the power of their minds. Opponents at play must use headsets that pick up brainwaves to levitate and move the ball to opposite ends of the board. Mindflex Duel is the next generation of Mattel's popular Mindflex game, which involved a single player moving a ball around an obstacle course. That game, which carried an initial price tag of $80, sold out in less than two months in 2008, says Susan Russo, director of game-play marketing at Mattel. "The response to it was overwhelming," she says. The technology at the base of Mindflex Duel comes from NeuroSky, a closely held company that makes headsets with sensors that can detect electrical brainwaves and process them into digital signals that can control software, games, and other objects. While the technology has existed for decades, Mattel says that NeuroSky's low-cost headsets make it possible to include the features in a game. "In the toy business, the challenge is providing the functionality, keeping the magic, and keeping the cost down," says Stephen Lister, vice-president of audio, chem lab, and electronic research and development at Mattel. Lister says he was initially "underwhelmed" when he saw a demo of NeuroSky's technology at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2006 because the technology was used to control a virtual environment on a PC. "I realized that the real magic was if it was psychokinetic in a physical space—in front of you—with no strings attached." Before long, thought-controlled objects may move far beyond games. "Toys are just the beginning," says NeuroSky Chief Executive Officer Stanley Yang. Future applications may include early detection of Alzheimer's, helping children cope with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and keeping people from falling asleep behind the wheel of an automobile, he says. Bio Sensors to Awaken a Sleepy Driver

NeuroSky is working with several automotive companies on potential safety applications, says Tansy Brook, head of communications at NeuroSky. Brook declines to name the companies, but says one application might be integrating the technology into a car's computer system. NeuroSky's bio sensors could detect when a driver falls asleep, for example, and that could prompt the car to make a loud noise to awaken the driver. Brook estimates that it will be four years to five years before consumers see such a technology in vehicles. Researchers in Germany are working on their own mind-controlled auto technology. In February, scientists at Autonomous Labs at the Freie Universität in Berlin demonstrated a car that was driven by a person's thoughts. The team hooked up a headset from Emotiv, which competes with NeuroSky, to its own software controlling a Volkswagen (VOW:GR) Passat equipped with navigational sensors, cameras, and GPS technology. Wearing the headset, the driver was able to instruct the car to turn left and right and to accelerate and slow down, using only his thoughts. It may not be long before mind-controlled software makes its way into the office, too. Already software called Mind Mouse, which works with the Emotiv headset, is available from Mind Technologies (JEDM) for $99. The software lets users navigate a computer, click to open programs, and compose and send e-mail—using only thought. In the future, employees may be required to wear similar headsets so companies can see how focused they are on their work, says Aaron Dignan, author of Game Frame, a recently published book that looks at elements of game design in the workplace. "At work, employers will ask: 'How many people in my office today are engaged, bored, or thinking about other stuff?'" Anyone who finds that future a bit Orwellian may take comfort in the fact that at least for now, mind-control technology is still mainly limited to games.

King is a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco.

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