EEG – electroencephalography – is almost a century old, and it's creeping out of the research lab and the neurologist's office. Headsets embedded with electrodes to read electrical activity in the brain are commercially available, and designers are using that information for all sorts of purposes. On the one hand, experimental wheelchairs can now be guided by brainwaves; videogame companies, inevitably, are exploring game control without a joystick.
Exciting as that may be, Henry Holtzman, the Chief Knowledge Officer of MIT's Media Lab, feels that EEG has a larger potential. "When people are trying to create these whizbang, EEG-based interfaces, I think they're reaching in the wrong direction, where they're trying to make you excited about the power of mind control," he tells Studio 360's reporter, Mark Anderson. "I think about its abilities to do things for you implicitly – to figure out what's going on with you and how you're reacting to things and then take that signal and feed it into how the system works." One of Holtzman's students, Arlene Ducao, developed a bike helmet called the MindRider that indicates its wearer's state of mind with a simple color code. On-task, or reaching a point of road rage?
"This is an entirely new level of social signaling," says Ariel Garten, of the Canadian technology firm Interaxon. "This is a way for someone to get a signal and open a channel to you that wasn't there before. So in some ways it's easy to write off fuzzy ears or levitating balls" – two new toys that use EEG – "as gimmicks. But they're pretty fundamental shifts in what we can do, and what we can communicate."
Mark Anderson also spoke with the creator of The Ascent, an interactive theater piece. The participant wears an EEG headset and is hooked up to a theatrical winch in the ceiling. If she can achieve a relaxed state of mind, she levitates off the ground, dozens of feet into the air. But the piece also tries to distract her with light shows, thunderous music, and sound effects. "The kernel of the gaming mechanic is that you need to get into a bona fide meditative mental state in order to make it work," says Yehuda Duenyas, the creator. "Anything you can throw on top of that only adds to it. I feel like it only benefits from getting more and more ridiculous." The Ascent uses EEG technology to make high drama out of how hard it is to keep a clear mind. It might be the perfect artwork for 21st century life.
Slideshow: The Ascent