The year is 1983 and, in a Tokyo suburb, man (well, one man) is evolving a new use for his opposable thumbs. His tool: a strange lump of plastic attached, via cables and a bigger lump of plastic, to his television. Twenty-five years later, the ungainly set-up, known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, is a relic collecting dust in the gaming graveyard alongside the wood-panelled Atari 2600. But its legacy lives on.
Today's consoles use remotes that have barely changed in principle since Nintendo launched its landmark "D-pad" controller. But change is afoot which is liberating our weary thumbs; within the past two years, we have learnt to wave our hands, dance and poke at screens and, soon, we will need only one muscle to control the action – the brain.
Last week, Satoru Iwata, the president and chief executive of Nintendo, added weight to the chatter sweeping technology conventions and gaming forums – the new frontier in computer control is in the mind. "As soon as we think something in our brain, it will appear within a video game," he told reporters at the games industry's annual E3 conference in Los Angeles.
Gamers are already anticipating the launch of the world's first thought-controlled headset. The Australian company Emotiv plans to launch its EPOC headset by the end of the year. The firm says its gadget will feature 16 sensors that push against the forehead to measure electrical activity. In theory, the process, called electro-encephalography, will allow gamers to manipulate objects in three dimensions with the power of thought.
For Michael Brook, the editor of the gadget magazine T3, the prospect of mind control is a reason to get very, very excited. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, Brook had a go on a rival product to the EPOC – the OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator. "I was playing a first-person shooter and would squint my eyes to run faster or blink to shoot," Brook says. The three sensors built into the headband measure physical responses to thought – blinking, squinting, and the flow of blood around the face – rather than pure thought itself.
Gavin Ogden, the editor of Computer and Video Games magazine, calls thought control the "holy grail of video gaming". He adds: "It's been the dream for 20 years to put on a headset and get inside a game." But, he says, "It's not going to happen any time soon."
Other industries are also benefiting from the technology that could make mind control happen. Last month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), an arm of the US Department of Defense, said it had awarded a $6.7m contract to Northrop Grumman to develop "brainwave binoculars". Sensors stuck to the scalp detect objects a soldier's eyes and subconscious may have seen before the conscious brain even knows it.
Meanwhile, intelligence analysts may soon benefit from "augmented cognition" – a device similar to the binoculars that promises to boost performance. And, on the battlefield, soldiers may soon wear headsets that alert their commanders to "brain overload" in the ranks. In medicine, thought-control technology will soon allow amputees to control the next generation of prosthetic limbs, or to create devices that allow stroke victims to communicate.
But it is in the games industry where the buzz surrounding thought control is loudest. At Emotiv's San Francisco offices, volunteers are this month testing the firm's wireless EPOC headset, which will be available "from selected retailers" later this year, costing around $300 (£150). And if it's all it's cracked up to be, it might just be the revolution in gaming people such as Brook and Ogden are praying for.
Emotiv has developed a game to go with the device in which the user's virtual self, or avatar, will smile, blink or scream when the user does. Objects can be lifted or supernatural powers summoned by the power of thought, while the environments will change according the user's mood. A built-in gyroscope will track head motion to guide you through the game. Most interestingly, software will allow the EPOC to be used to control existing games.
"This is the tip of the iceberg for what is possible for us," Emotiv's co-founder Tan Le told a rapt audience during a recent press demonstration. "There will be a convergence of gesture-based technology and the brain as a new interface – the holy grail is the mind."
Control freaks: the new ways to play
By James Cooper
In 1977, five-wire resistive technology was developed and patented – the same type used by the Nintendo DS today. The user can interact with the display's content with either a plastic stylus or their fingers. Contact based in the corners and one in the centre estimate the pressure of a touch, based on calculations from the resistances. Other applications of this technology include PDAs, and mobile phones such as Apple's iPhone. Resistive touch-screen's cousin, infrared touch-screen, has the most durable surface, however, and is used in various military applications.
With the appearance of a set of scales from the bathroom of Buck Rogers, the Wii Fit balance board contains four pressure sensors accurately to detect fine changes in weight distribution. This allows the user to control the game by moving the body and leaning. So far, Wii Fit games include yoga; ski-jumping; tight-rope walking; and – perhaps slightly depressingly for the obsessive computer enthusiast – measuring Body Mass Index. Future titles such as Jillian Michaels' Fitness Ultimatum 2009 could potentially do wonders for the average gamer's physical health.
Developed for the PlayStation 2, Sony's Eye Toy is a camera with a built-in microphone that sits on top of the television, allowing players to interact with the game by detecting sound and motion. Sony weren't the first to come up with the concept – Nintendo's Game Boy and Sega's Dreamcast both had cameras before them – but improved processing capabilities meant that the PS2 was able to have a much better go at it, and an updated version is also available for the PS3. Future developments will include users being able to draw their own interactive landscapes and environments.
Through the use of accelerometer and optical-sensor technology, gamers can interact with and manipulate items on the screen using movement and pointing. Hackers have shown great interest in the technology, using the Wiimote (among other Wii products) for other applications, known collectively as Wii Homebrew. Companies are looking into reprogramming the Wiimotes for business applications, and there's already been an interactive whiteboard created using the one-handed controllers.