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ananyo writes "A toy quadcopter can be steered through an obstacle course by thought alone. The aircraft's pilot operates it remotely using a cap of electrodes to detect brainwaves that are translated into commands. Ultimately, the developers of the mind-controlled copter hope to adapt their technology for directing artificial robotic limbs and other medical devices." From the paper (PDF) abstract: "... we report a novel experiment of BCI controlling a robotic quadcopter in three-dimensional (3D) physical space using noninvasive scalp electroencephalogram (EEG) in human subjects. We then quantify the performance of this system using metrics suitable for asynchronous BCI. Lastly, we examine the impact that the operation of a real world device has on subjects’ control in comparison to a 2D virtual cursor task. Approach. ... Individual subjects were able to accurately acquire up to 90.5% of all valid targets presented while traveling at an average straight-line speed of 0.69 m s^(1)." This also appears to be the first time a Brain-Computer Interface was used to operate a flying device in 3D space. Also, there are several additional videos showing people operating the quadcopter.

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Nathan Ingraham

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There's little doubt that the traditional password is in danger of being replaced — much has been written about its vulnerabilities and flaws, and organizations like DARPA and Google are hard at work looking for alternatives. Biometric sensors like the fingerprint scanner are one options, but some students and researchers from UC Berkeley are taking a more mental than physical approach to security. Using an off-the-shelf, consumer-oriented headset with a built-in electroencephalogram (EEG), the team developed a way for users to log in and authenticate their identities using only their brain waves.

The impetus for this project came from the availability of low-cost EEG sensors — while researchers have long proposed using EEGs to...

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There have been numerous commercial attempts at "games" that are controlled with biometrics, particularly brain waves. There's Mattel's Mindflex, for example, as well as the Star Wars Force Trainer. They're almost purely novelty items, and don't particularly work that well.

Crooked Tree Studios founder Lat Ware (who's programmed games at studios including Realtime Worlds and Crytpic) wants to add some real competitive gameplay to the novelty of brainwave-controlled applications. He's using Kickstarter to try to fund Throw Trucks with Your Mind, a competitive multiplayer game in which players put on a commercially-available brainwave sensor and essentially focus their thoughts to toss vehicles and pieces of the environment at other players to win. Movement is done via mouse and keyboard but attacks are pure thought.

We caught up with Ware to talk about Throw Trucks and pick his brain about the future of biometrics-controlled games.

How does it work?

The headset is an EEG, which is basically a really sensitive volt-meter. It looks at surface voltages in the brain, which decades of research have mapped to specific thought patterns. NeuroSky's MindWave is processing the data for me to extract how calm and focused you are. I do not know the details of the algorithm that they're using, but it does work.

You don't have to think a specific thought to raise your focus, though it is different for different people. In my case, I stare at the dot in the center of the screen and tune out everything else. Some people focus on a specific word on the screen. Some people listen to a specific sound, like the laptop fan. I have one friend who computes prime numbers in his head. The headset doesn't care what you focus on, only that you are focused. Calm is more subject and interesting.

In my case, I have to believe in myself and if I doubt myself, I can't do it. I have one friend that imagines the effect that he wants and trusts that it will happen, and that raises his calm. Focusing on your breathing helps. Thinking about something that makes you happy helps. People in happy, committed relationships often have their calm jump by 30 percent when they think about their significant other. It's fundamentally about mental relaxation, but what makes you relaxed is a complex beast.

What's the difference between this and other biometrics-controlled games? Why is it more responsive?

The biggest difference between this and other biometric games is that this is a fully fleshed out game. Levitating a ball with your focus is not a game. Unlocking doors with your calm is not a game. Filling up a meter is not a game. Those are elaborate meters. Throw Trucks With Your Mind is an actual game, as competitive as the Modern Warfare games, but with a completely new style of play that uses the features of the headset. I have a general rule about games: If you can't win and you can't lose, it's not a game. There are a couple exceptions, but it has served me well.

Where do you see biometrics-controlled games going in the future?

Well, in the next 15 years, a game like Throw Trucks With Your Mind will come out. If my Kickstarter succeeds, it will happen right now. If that is a success, then we can expect a wave of EEG-based games about 10 years afterwards. That would drive not so much innovation, but a reduction in price. Right now, purely brain-controlled interfaces just aren't there yet. We're getting better, and I feel like we might have a good, affordable brain-controlled interface in 15 years, depending on how much is invested in this technology. That said, I don't see the controller going away from mainstream gaming.

Why Kickstarter? Are venture capitalists unconvinced?

I actually spoke to eight venture capitalists and a number of investors about the game and the feedback I kept getting was to prove user traction, then come back. So, I had a conundrum because I needed user traction to get funding, I needed a product to get user traction, and I need funding to get a product. The minimum viable product doesn't work so well when it requires an $80 piece of hardware. Kickstarter broke me out of that loop.

What happens to the game if the Kickstarter fails?

If Kickstarter fails, I don't know. Maybe the project will be salvageable as I will have shown that I was able to raise $27,000 (at the time of this writing), even though I didn't get it because of Kickstarter's rules. Maybe that would still show solid demand for the product, since it was raised entirely from customers. Maybe that would be enough to convince an incubator or investor to pick me up. I am unsure. I haven't given it any thought, because all of my energy and time has gone to campaigning for the Kickstarter as hard as I possibly can. I haven't given myself any time off.

[Kris Graft wrote this article originally on sister site Gamasutra.]

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Perhaps it is the onset of delirium caused by trying to properly report a 30,000 attendee conference while also (and no less properly) reporting the colorful after-hours of New Orleans, but after a few days at SfN 2012 I have acquired the impression that this huge mass of brain scientists, when focused and sober, is capable of all sorts of wonder on which an apprentice science fiction author would feast. None of the press so far seem to harbor ambitions for literature, but if you had to bet a grant on who secretly does, bet on the absent freelancer – we will leave him unnamed – who carries around the convention center a fresh mint julep and feeds the mint leaves to the mouse saved from a laboratory that rides sentry on his shoulder.

There are plenty of hot topics to choose from, but his first book would probably be about neural optogenetics. A combination of optical and genetic research methods, optogenetics involves shooting lasers into particular brain tissue to inhibit or disinhibit its operative cells. Since its breakthrough about two years ago, the method has advanced to the point where researchers now talk about perfecting it and applying it. It’s fascinating tech, but does it amount to mind control, as some YouTube commenters might have you think? Not exactly.

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Soldiers and veterans looking to alleviate the devastating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder might soon have a new way to help themselves. Strangely, it involves using their gray matter to control a videogame.

The process is known as neurofeedback, or NF, and it’s the latest in a long, increasingly out-there list of potential PTSD remedies — from neck injections to memory-zapping drugs — being studied by military researchers. This week, scientists at San Diego’s Naval Medical Center announced plans for a clinical trial on 80 patients, designed to compare neurofeedback with a sham control procedure. The trial, the first of its kind, is meant to determine whether or not NF can avail soldiers of symptoms like nightmares, anxiety attacks and flashbacks.

“The proposed study could expand treatment alternatives for servicemen with PTSD,” the announcement reads. “If [neurofeedback] is shown to improve symptom reduction [...] it would offer a non-pharmacological intervention that would avoid undesirable side effects, and accelerate recovery.”

While the idea sounds pretty odd, the process of neurofeedback isn’t so intimidating (and I would know, having undergone the procedure myself for The Daily last year). A clinician affixes EEG electrodes to specific regions on a patient’s scalp, designed to read the output of the patient’s brain activity. Then, as the clinician monitors those brain waves from a computer console, the patient controls the key element of a videogame — like a car racing through a winding tunnel — using nothing more than their mind.

If a patient’s brain activity remains calm and steady, the videogame responds with enhanced performance — the car moves more quickly and navigates smoothly. If activity is wonkier and less controlled, that race car will veer out of control and, say, smash into a brick wall. Game over.

The idea behind NF is grounded in the emerging science of brain plasticity, or the ability of the adult brain (previously thought to reach stasis in adulthood) to change throughout life. Neurofeedback clinicians suspect that the brain, in “seeing” its own activity on-screen, is spurred to fix defects in order to work on a more optimal level. Over a series of several sessions, those repairs then supposedly become more permanently entrenched.

“When the brain sees itself interacting with the world, it becomes interested in that,” Dr. Siegfried Othmer, chief scientist at LA’s EEG Institute and responsible, along with his neurobiologist wife Sue, for “The Othmer Method” — a specific approach to neurofeedback being used in the military trial — told me last year.  ”Likewise, when it sees the signal on-screen and realizes it’s in charge, it becomes interested. You might not notice, but the brain takes notice.”

The realm of brain plasticity is relatively new, but neurofeedback actually isn’t. The procedure first gained notoriety in the 1960s as a treatment for everything from migraine headaches to bed-wetting. Still, in part because of a paucity of mainstream scientific research, the approach has long been relegated to the realm of bunk science. “I think the practice has gotten ahead of the science,” Dr. Andrew Leuchter, a professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, told me. “It wouldn’t be surprising … if much of the benefit was attributable to the placebo response.”

Despite such mainstream skepticism, neurofeedback is already being used by several military doctors and psychologists. Maj. Michael Villaneuva — nicknamed “The Wizard” by his patients — has performed NF on several hundred active-duty soldiers, and even brought his game console and electrodes on a deployment to Afghanistan this year. And Dr. Jerry Wesch, who leads a PTSD recovery program at Fort Hood, describes the results of his own neurofeedback trials on patients as “jaw dropping.”

Upwards of a thousand former soldiers have also tried neurofeedback, thanks to Homecoming 4 Veterans, a non-profit started by the Othmers that offers free NF to veterans through a network of 200 practitioners nationwide. The two are also responsible for training Villaneuva and other military docs in the art of NF.

Already, the Othmers are confident that the military’s clinical trial, expected to kick off in December, will yield positive results. And they hope that the trial, once complete, lends more credence to the therapy they’ve helped pioneer. “I think the trial could be huge, not only with [medical] academia, but for clinicians,” Sue tells Danger Room. “They’re often wary of adapting procedures that haven’t seen evidence-based study. So this checks off an important box.”

But the trial won’t be easy: Controlled tests of processes, rather than pharmaceuticals, are notoriously tough. That’s because designing and executing a “sham” procedure is much more difficult than, say, just doling out sugar pills instead of the real drug.

Then again, for soldiers who credit neurofeedback with their recovery from PTSD, the execution or academic impact of a clinical trial is hardly the most important thing. “How it works doesn’t matter to me,” Staff Sgt. Justin Roberts, who underwent the process at Fort Hood, told me. “Just as long as it does.”

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On January 7th of 1964, having held his tongue for two months despite a steady stream of criticism, author Ken Kesey wrote the following letter to The New York Times in defence of the Broadway adaptation of his novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest; a stage show which had attracted a fair amount of bad press, chiefly due to its supposedly unrealistic storyline, characters, and setting. Clearly Kesey — a man who found inspiration for the asylum-based novel whilst working in a veteran's hospital for a year — had heard enough.

A brilliant read.

Transcript follows. Image courtesy of Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research.


Image: Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research
Transcript
KIRK DOUGLAS
ONE FLEW OVER THE
CUCKOO'S NEST

January 7, 1964

From: Ken Kesey, [Redacted]

Drama Mailbag:

The answering of one's critics has always struck me as doing about as much good as fighting crabgrass with manure. Critics generally thrive on the knowledge that their barbs are being felt; best to keep silent and starve them of such attention, let them shrivel and dry, spines turned in. So I have tried to keep this silence during the attacks on the Wasserman play of my novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest...figuring that the people who saw the play as being about a mental hospital, because it is set in a mental ward, are the sort that would fault Moby Dick for being an "exaggerated" story about a boat, also figuring that such simplemindedness is relatively harmless. And even keeping silent when the play was condemned because the subject of mental health as a whole was treated disrespectfully, or irresponsibly, or--god forbid!--humorously.

But when the defenders of "Cuckoo's Nest" begin to show signs of suffering some of the same misconceptions as the critics, I feel I must speak out.

Mr. Friedman's letter last Sunday was as good an argument as I've read for judging a work on it's own terms. Still, by comparing the reality of the setting of "Cuckoo's Nest" with "1984" or "The Trial," he does injustice to a number of people connected with the research that went into that setting. First, the director, Alex Segel, who created an atmosphere so faithful to the wacky-weird world of a nuthouse ward (faithful to the real wards, not the public conception of what a hospital should be like) that a friend of mine, (a Speech Therapist in a V.A. Hospital who took time off to fly back to the opening), remarked after the final curtain, "I feel as though I just put in a hard day at the office."

Second, the actors. Who capture that nuthouse feeling so completely with their characterizations that I found myself wondering where some of them had been sprung from. Just, for a small example, their movement: inmates have a way of walking that is both piticully random and terribly purposeful, and peculiar to no other place I know of save the mental ward. The cast has this peculiar movement. Watch Ruckly when he shuffles onto stage; he's been shuffling that same path in those same slippers for centuries. Or watch Billy Bibbit's neck contortions, or the caged-squirell frolicking of Marini's madness. And Kirk Douglas..after watching his performance, in which the usual Douglas' gestures and gyrations were secondary, to subtler actions (the way he will playfully punch another character's arm as he passes, a gesture barely noticible, familiar, reinforcing..) I asked if he had visited any hospital in preparing for the part. "Spent a lot of time in Camarillo," he told me. "Got to know a lot of the guys. I still correspond with one. "Quite a place. And different, you know? then you think it'll be..."

And last, the notion that this setting is only a fictional and fantastic one does an injustice to thousands of patients in hundreds of wards almost identical to that ward on the stage of the Cort. While Cuckoo's Nest is, as Mr. Friedman rightly points out, about more than just a mental hospital, it is also an attack on tyranny of the sort that is perhaps more predominant in mental hospitals then any place else in our land. It is by no accident that the acute ward was picked for the setting; after working for close to a year as an aide in two hospitals in California I could imagine no better backdrop for my parable. I only needed describe what I had seen and heard, what I had felt after endless swing shift hours talking with the broken and defeated men of our society, and what I concluded to be the stress thar broke them. McMurphy is, of course, fictional--a dream, a wild hope fabricated out of need in defeat--but the men he comes to save, and the menace he battles, these are real, live human being. While this world may be fantastic, it is not mere fantasy. Neither is it an exaggeration; when I hear of someone accusing the book, or the play, of "exaggerating the bad" I think of my last days at the hospital: the first draft of the book almost finished, I had handed in my letter of resignation (a day before, incidently, I received a letter from the superior nurse advising me I was being discharged for "a lack of interest in the hospital...") and I had only one bit of research left: I wished to try shock treatment to get some idea why the patients thought it so bad. And I did. And I found out. And to those who think it is fictionally exaggerated I only say try it first and see.

Because it can never be as bad in fiction as it is in real life.

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