On becoming the Borg… or not. Brain games for fun, for health, and for education. Inside the NeuroGaming Conference with Dr. Kiki. Adapted from her recent post on Medium.

Where we’re at with wearables

It seems innocuous enough. Strap on a sensor. Open an app. Suddenly, your heartbeat is visible on your wrist, phone, or computer. Your inner world is suddenly on the outside of your body, making possible a multitude of actions should you choose to do anything with that pulsing data stream.

Currently, devices in the market that allow people to track and share their activities and the related cardiovascular details are increasing in popularity. For some, it’s an opportunity to simply improve their health, for others it is a chance to optimize their daily activities, and for the athletes out there it assists with physical training.

Whatever the reason for use, it allows the wearer to pay attention to this otherwise hard to track facet of life. The end result is that the person paying attention might just live a healthier life. And, it’s hard to argue the downsides of a healthy life.

But what if it’s your brainwaves that you see bouncing along the screen? What can you do with that? Well, once the technology hits a stride, really, the possibilities are limitless.

Betting on brains

The 2014 NeuroGaming Conference was held in San Francisco in early May, and was well-attended by technologists, academics, and investors. Walking through the hall elicited a feeling of giddy excitement at the displays of brain-monitoring devices, EEG displays, and people deep inside virtual reality games. The technology is right at the doorstep of the future, and the glimpse I got was enough to send my head spinning into a multitude of thoughts.

Gaming was the main thrust of the conference, and as such, a prominent part of the discussion and exhibition hall. NeuroSkyMuse, and Emotiv were among the EEG-sensing headset developers in attendance. The variety of headsets, while still small, does suggest that this is an area of rapid expansion and competition within the field.

I got to try out a NeuroSky headset while playing a role-playing game called NeuroMage, which promotes a brain state of active calmness by asking you to “meditate” and hit a certain level of brain activity for a period of time in order to learn spells that you can use to cast against your opponents.

Full virtual reality (VR) gaming devices, like the Oculus Rift, were also on display and conference attendees were lining up to take turns donning a headset. While there are still limitations to the VR experience, Amir Rubin (CEO of Sixense Entertainment) expressed a belief that we would be seeing a radical improvement within just five years, and that is when we will really see consumer market penetration. He also suggested that the ultimate yet to come in VR will be an experience that is even better than reality.

Beyond gaming for entertainment, these devices offer the option of gaming for other purposes, like self-help. Bio-feedback has been used for years to help people to break bad habits and create better ones. Now, with EEG-reading devices available to consumers, this therapeutic practice can target exactly where habits start… the brain. Many companies are already jumping on this bandwagon with software that focuses on stress-reduction, attention, and anxiety, to name just a few.

One company that stood out to me was Neuroelectrics, who are developing headsets that are both EEG-sensing and trans-cranially stimulating. They are pursuing FDA approval for their devices to be used on a prescription basis by patients suffering from neural disorders and trauma.

Enobio headset

Neuroelectric’s headset, Enobio.

While the headset is currently used only by researchers, the potential here is astounding. One day soon, patients will be able to pinpoint where in the brain neural activity is troubled, be able to directly stimulate it for 15 minutes once a week, and pair the sessions with VR behavioral therapy to really see improvement.

Finally, education is another area where human-computer interfaces have the potential to disrupt the current paradigm. Neurogaming will allow kids to have fun while learning, while at the same time letting parents and teachers track their progress. Additionally, the platforms will be fully individualized to give people a chance to accelerate learning at their own pace and comfort level.

To Borg, or not to Borg

I am not against becoming one with a machine from time to time, and am personally thrilled at many of the places this technology sector will go. However, it’s getting to the point that people need to start having some hard discussions about boundaries to brain-computer interface use because the enthusiasm for development of potential ideas is quickly moving us into a science fiction derived reality.

We need to work together to get past the golly-gee state of fascination with the shiny newness of it all in order to consider how we want technology to play a role in helping us become who we want to be in the future.

Maybe I just want to be Borg on Tuesdays… what about you?