Questioning Technology: Brainwaves

In what almost seems like science fiction, a small Manhattan company is offering a product that allows human brainwaves to control a wide range of electronically addressable devices including musical instruments, CD-ROM drives, laser disc players and lighting systems. IBVA Technologies, Inc. manufactures a new generation electroencephalograph (EEG) that uses electrodes in a headband to read brainwave data and then transmits that data wirelessly to a Macintosh computer. The company's software then processes the data so that signals can be displayed as either two or three-dimensional color graphs on a monitor screen. What makes the IBVA (Interactive Brainwave Visual Analyzer) so unique, however, is it's ability to translate the brainwave data into triggers that can control multimedia movies, video games and electronic musical instruments. This allows the IBVA to transcend its function as a precision measurement instrument to become the human interface to a wide range of entertainment devices. According to the IBVA's inventor, Japanese engineer Masahiro Kahata, brainwave interfaces represent the future of human/computer interactivity. Direct links between the brain and the computer, Kahata contends, will improve the ability of all people -- regardless of physical capability, mental acuity and computer literacy -- to exercise mind over matter and use computers to accomplish tasks in ways previously unimaginable. However, brainwave control of electronic devices is still a primitive art. Many of the estimated 1,500 IBVA owners are experimenters working in diverse fields such as education, music, medicine, psychology and the arts. The IBVA, as with all medical grade EEG devices, uses head-mounted electrodes to record the very small electrical impulses coming from various parts of the brain. The measurements are made in terms of voltage and frequency. When graphically displayed on the computer screen using the IBVA software, a relaxed beta state is displayed as a calm blue sea while more focused activity appears like sharp mountain peaks over a rocky terrain. By being able to view brain activity in real time, the IBVA is valued as a biofeedback tool for people to learn to control their emotional and mental states. Users can teach themselves to relax, concentrate and control physical responses. When working away from a computer, brainwave patterns can be recorded on camcorders or tape recorders. This allows the measurement of brainwaves during strenuous activities such as jogging, roller blading or even skydiving. To control outboard devices, the IBVA breaks down the brainwave information into 127 segments that can be used to trigger actions, such as MIDI notes on electronic musical instruments or Quicktime movies on desktop computers. "We can map every little slice to a MIDI note," said Helen R. Meschkow, manager of customer relations for IBVA. "If a peak occurs at a given point, it plays the corresponding note. So you can layer together a lot of sounds to create a musical composition." Current IBVA users are experimenting with a range of applications: * Ryan Yoshimoto, a San Francisco multimedia artist, is using the device to create databases accessible by human thought. "The users will think about what they want to see or think about a feeling and the response will be a sequence of images that match those feelings or desires," he said. Among Yoshimoto's recent projects was a three-camera shoot of motorcycles running at high speeds over bridges and twisting roads in the San Francisco Bay area. The riders wore an IBVA to record their brainwaves. It wasn't a complete success, Yoshimoto said, because the vibration of the ride sometimes contaminated the signal to the IBVA. But experimentation will continue. "Ideally we'd like to record real time the experiences of high energy sports or incredible sensations like sitting on top of a mountain in Peru," he said. * "Road Rash," a motorcycle racing game from Electronic Arts that's played on the 3DO platform, can be hooked to the IBVA as an interface. When brainwaves are used to control the race, the game can be set so that the cycle can move only if the mind is in a calm state. When a player is too excited, the cycle just sits on the screen. The calmer the player, the faster the cycle moves. IBVA allows players to use the flip side, too. The game can be set so that the more excited the player's emotional state, the faster the cycle moves across the screen. * The interest of an audience in a film or video can be measured by the IBVA. Responses from the device can be used to cause a plot change or to have a liked or disliked character die or be given extra attention in the story. Ad agencies, said Meschkow, could use the IBVA to measure the interest level in commercials or characters. "Let's say you take data from ten people and as the movie plays you don't see any significant level of interest," she said. "You know you might make changes in the commercial to get more focused concentration from the audience." * Sylvia Pengilly, professor of music theory at Loyola University in New Orleans, uses the IBVA and its MIDI feature to trigger musical notes using her brainwaves. "I always wanted to 'think' my music into the computer," said Pengilly. "It's still in the beginning stages, but I can control the form of the music according to the moods I set. "I visualize a sunset over Lake Ponchatrain, creating a calm mood," she said. "Then, when I want the music to become more active, I try to become very tense in order to trigger a more agitated music experience." * Perhaps some of the most unusual research with the IBVA comes from Ikuo Nakamura, who hooked his system to a plant located in New York City. He then hooked up a speakerphone to a bird cage containing a canary in Kentucky. During a long distance phone call, the plant's electrical patterns were converted to sound information which triggered a synthesizer. The canary listened to the plant's sound and then sang a song in response. The conversation between plant and bird was exhibited recently in the New York Hall of Science and in Kentucky's Museum of Contemporary Art. Yes, said Meschkow, plants give off electrical impulses, just like humans. "Of course, they don't wear a headband," she said. "They use different types of electrodes and these are placed on the leaves of the plant. You can walk across the room and slowly approach the plant and you actually get a very intense readout. And it's not from wind or air; you are reading electrical impulses from the plant." IBVA systems are available in one or two-channel configurations. The single channel system, priced at $1,295 receives cumulative brainwaves from both hemispheres of the brain. The two-channel system, at $2,295, receives the brainwaves from the left and right hemispheres separately. Included is a one or two-channel headband, a wireless data transmitter and receiver (300 MHz, 30 foot range, a pair for two channel systems), software for recording brainwaves in 2- and 3-D graphs and for using brainwaves to control sounds and pictures. A CD-ROM, called Step 1, includes a series of examples of how the system may be used with games, interactive movies, brain training, stress reduction and plant personalities.

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