Video Game interface technologies now include brain-wave control
Since the dawn of civilisation, the physiological structure of our brains has been shaped in an evolutionary way by our societies and our roles within society. Human male brains have been honed by the need to provide for the family and have focused on mono-tasking and specialisation as a way of competing. These vestigial instincts are responsible, it is argued in popular books such as "Why men don't have a clue and women always need more shoes", for common and regular misunderstandings, friction and even relationship breakdowns between the sexes. Women fail to understand why men go into a world of their own when trying to solve a problem and don't always appreciate their helpful suggestions.
My relationship with my partner is littered with examples of how the female mind seems far more capable of multi-tasking than my own, not least in the contrasting ways in which we set about making meals for each other. We both research dishes and recipes that we hope will please the other but the similarity in process ends there. I need to be locked away in the kitchen free from any form of distraction so that I can concentrate on exact preparation and perfect timing. I don't welcome any form of conversation or intrusions of other household tasks whereas my partner almost demands that I talk to her whilst she is simultaneously cooking and attending to a myriad of other tasks. There is medical evidence, apparently, that men's hearing becomes impaired when they are concentrating.
Shopping also appears to be a totally different experience for men and women and whereas a man's desire is to obtain goods as quickly and efficiently as possible, shopping for a woman is a far more social experience which does not require a successful acquisition to be fulfilling. These mental processes and preferences seem to be borne out by our experiences and whilst the E-Commerce solutions of today are structured to meet the capabilities and preferences of the male mind, the virtual world technologies which the Serious Games Institute at Coventry University is involved in are maturing to the point where the richness of immersive virtual world shopping malls creates an experience of virtual commerce which should prove more attractive to the opposite sex.
The Serious Games Institute (SGI) is an international centre of excellence for the use of video games and virtual world technologies for non-entertainment purposes such as training and simulation. The health sector has been a fertile space for piloting the use of games-based learning for a wide range of applications designed to bring health benefits from training first responders in the emergency services to deal with a city centre explosion, through tackling MRSA training for nurses and onto public health awareness initiatives for a diverse range of modern conditions such as obesity and aids. The inherent ability of games to provide a risk-free immersive environment in which to learn by practice without serious real-life consequence is well suited to the health arena.
The SGI is also exploring both the potential usage of innovative games interfaces which utilise human physiological process to control computer technology and their impact on users. The games industry has introduced many new devices in recent times such as the Nintendo Wii and Guitar Hero. These interface devices have succeeded in attracting whole new generations of users of all ages to become engaged in video games which produce health benefits. "Wiifit" and the "Brain Game" are two obvious examples, but it is in advanced devices such as Neurosky that the SGI is pioneering the use of brainwaves to control video games to generate serious benefits.
Neurosky (see picture) is a commercial headset whose consumer version will cost around £40. The headset is able to filter and resolve the alpha and beta brainwaves associated with our levels of concentration and relaxation. Neurosky uses small electrodes on the forehead and neck to capture the signals that are then processed in the headset before acting as an input to the computer and/or games console. At a trivial level, Neurosky has already been used to develop a version of the classic "Space Invaders" game where success is influenced by the player's ability to concentrate.
Whilst these casual games are interesting and arguably do offer serious benefits in training the mind to concentrate, the SGI's involvement in the development of serious games which help to address conditions such as autism and ADHD and human emotional problems such as anger management is likely to have a greater impact on health.
To make these devices seriously practical in training and simulation applications, they need to be able to demonstrate :-
- Affordability (Under £50)
- Reliability and repeatability of results (To get consistent benefits)
- Auto-calibration (No need for different set-ups for individual users)
- Wearability (Don't make you look like a geek)
- Useful applications (Demonstrable benefits in learning applications)
The SGI's work so far has focused on using levels of attention to control serious games which reward the player for high levels of attention and/or relaxation. It is this technique that could be applied to ADHD to bring some control over their attention levels and also benefit people with high stress levels by training their minds to relax. There is already evidence that the use of "off the shelf" video games by children in hospital can provide more effective pain relief and recovery processes than drugs, and devices like Neurosky could take these applications to a whole new level.
Video games and the communications technology used by today's youngsters often demands new levels of multi-tasking capability and there is research evidence that these technologies are causing Darwinian changes in the brains of so-called Digital Natives - those youngsters who have been born since the invention of the internet and have never known a world without digital media. These changes are the subject of great international interest as physiological changes in the brains of whole generations of humans is likely to have a profound impact on global social and economic development and the health and wellbeing of future generations.
For myself, I am focusing on improving my multitasking capabilities so that I can at least have an interesting conversation with my partner whilst cooking the Sunday roast.