Much of the buzz around virtual reality has been about words like embodiment, immersion and presence – how your body will feel part of something virtual, but also real in terms of sensations tricking your eyes, hands, feet. Now, startup Neurable wants to take the body out of the equation, or at least most of it except the brain.
The company has unveiled a prototype for a new form of VR; what it calls a “brain-computer interface”, that lets users play games with their minds. The headset itself is an HTC Vive, but the standard strap has been replaced with a custom device, laden with modules, that measures specific brain signals and translates this to actions within VR.
At the SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles, Neurable showed off the device with a test game called Awakening. In it, the player has to escape a lab, involving picking up objects, stopping lasers and turning a robot dog into a balloon animal – all with your mind.
While some brain-controlled interfaces measure EEG patterns, Neurable’s device targets something called event-related potentials, which are more specific signals that occur when the brain is responding to some form of stimuli.
“You can think of event-related potentials in a very simplified manner,” Neurable’s CEO Ramses Alcaide told IEEE Spectrum. “If you get down to core, they tell you what a person cares about. When a person cares about something, they want to take action on it. The game can predict what that action is, in real-time.”
Neurable isn’t a games studio, and while Awakening is intended to eventually be a commercial project, the company has its sights set on using their mind-controlled technology to revolutionise VR interfaces. “Right now, if you try to do anything like typing or dealing with high-density data in virtual reality, it doesn’t work well. But BCI will allow VR to become that computing platform,” Alcaide notes in his interview with IEEE Spectrum.
Seeing as it’s been hard enough giving a legitimate reason for people to buy a controller-based headset, will a brain-controlled form of virtual reality catch on? It’s likely to be a while before there are enough apps and games to justify Neurable’s addition, but if they manage to crack the technology it could signal a new arena for VR – one with a lot more hands in pockets.