Your Voice, Our Headlines

Download Folkspaper App with no Ads!


A fast-growing newspaper curated by the online community.

Are brain-controlled video games the next big thing?

  • tag_facesReaction
  • Tip Bones

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center was recently awarded over $8 million by the National Institutes of Health for their team's experiments into brain-computer interfaces (BCI). BCI's involve transistor-like chips, known as multi-electrode arrays, that are placed into a patient's brain to track neurons that can be used to control electronic components. One of the biggest successes the team has had was creating a robotic arm that can be used through BCIs.

Nathan Copeland, 33, is a volunteer for the program at the University of Pittsburg. He's paralyzed from the chest down and his body only allows very limited movement. Copeland was the receiver of the robotic arm which allows him to a wider-range of motion than he had before. What's even more impressive is that controlling the arm is not just a one-way signal; Copeland has said that he is able to feel a crude sense of touch when using it, picking up on heat, tingling, vibrations, tapping, and pressure. This can be a huge leap in technology for people with disabilities who have paralysis or loss of feeling in their bodies. When the university closed during the coronavirus outbreak, Copeland took home the equipment from the lab that allows him to use his BCI. 

However, although BCIs are a medical marvel, it's not the only thing they can be used for. When Copeland didn't need to work on tasks with the research team he found a way to recreationally use the BCI, playing video games. Andrew Schwartz, a leading neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh, has said that for video games with simple commands the technology is pretty straightforward. All that is required is for Copeland to look at the screen and think about the selections he wants to make and he is able to think the commands into existence. Some games he likes to play include the card game "Slay The Spire", the arcade-shooter, "Raiden V", the two-dimensional "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" and he has even managed to play "Final Fantasy XIV" although he says the process for the RPG is more complicated, it's not impossible.

Medical institutions aren't the only ones who have been looking into this technology, some video game pioneers have been trying to dabble to create brain-controlled games. The most notable achievement was from the gaming start-up Neurable in 2017, who made a noninvasive BCI by attaching an electroencephalogy (EEG) device consisting on sensors that are placed just above the head to allow gameplay through a modified HTC Vive VR headset. Their demo of the device had players attempt to escape a futuristic lab without using their hands. The players had to select hovering objects by cycling through the options in their brain and picking what they wanted to use in the game.

Neurable co-founder Adam Molnar said, "It felt like the computer guessing what was important to you... In an immersive environment you start to feel like this is a different kind of interaction than what we've felt before." He described the technology as "hacking" the neural responses of players. Unfortunately, even though they were successful there weren't many companies interested in partnering with Neurable due to how costly the devices were to make. Neurable eventually pivoted its operations to partnering with the military to develop training that incorporated neurological feedback.

Not all hope is lost for brain-controlled gaming though. Valve, one of the largest video game companies that runs the online game store Steam along with creating the AAA video game series "Half-Life" is the highest-profile company to express interest in BCIs. Little is known about how the company is planning to put BCI into play but Gabe Newell, the president of Valve, said to IGN; "We're way closer to 'The Matrix' than people realize... It's going to have a huge impact on the kinds of experiences we can create for people." given Valve is a multi-billion dollar studio, they are in an ideal position to explore new technology.

Even though BCIs are an excited new possibility, there are some ethical concerns about the recreational use of brain-controlled gaming. Due to the fact that BCIs are a tow-way street and can send signals into the brain there are some ethical dilemmas in the gaming industry since creating addictive and compulsive behaviors are a key component in retaining players to make more money, something that has been an issue since arcade games in the 1980s. A professor at Duke University, Nita Farahany said, "We have no idea what the implications of making those alterations are long term, and how much behavior can actually be manipulated... Can you stimulate craving or can you stimulate addiction? Could you stimulate particular preferences?" 

There are also issues of privacy when it comes to corporations. Many big corporations are already known for tracking users data to curate things like advertisements, political campaigns, and selling data to third-parties. Hypothetically, using BCIs recreationally through video games, companies could track and record emotional states, stimuli, and in-game decisions and could use that data for monetary gain. Before BCIs are publicly released, Farahny says that permissible uses and misuses of neurotechnology need to be established along with a user bill of rights.

Although there are those ethical concerns, as long as the technology isn't being misused the future is bright for BCIs medically and recreationally. Nathan Copeland likes to focus on the positives of brain-controlled technology, understandably as it gives him greater autonomy over his life, "If you're trying to think of bad stuff that can happen, you can think that, but I look at the good you can do with it," he says, "Eventually it will get to a stage where someone who doesn't 'need' [a BCI] could have it... That will open up a whole new genre or space for people to be gaming in."