We can chat to our friends across the other side of the world as if they were in the same room, carry thousands of songs in a box the side of a cigarette packet, and even travel to space. But there remains one science fiction standard that the human race has yet to master – mind-control.
Despite the pace at which technology has developed over the past five decades, in general, the way we have interacted with it has remained frustratingly the same. Even though it is possible for doctors to operate on patients on different continents – an alarming innovation called "telesurgery" – or for video gamers to enjoy hyper-realistic graphics, we still carry out these tasks with our hands by pushing buttons and moving a joystick or mouse.
Yet the day when we are able to use the mind instead of our hands may not be as far away as once thought. Brain-computer interfaces – devices that can read and translate brain signals – have existed for years, but have cost thousands, making them impossible as a commercial viability.
Now, however, gamers can buy one for less than £100. The NIA – which stands for Neural Impulse Actuator – is being promoted as the first commercially available BCI (brain-computer interface) specifically for PC gamers, and its creators, OCZ Technology, promise that it will mark "a new era in gaming".
The device, which consists of a headband that plugs into a small black box that then links into your PC, works by picking up signals produced by your brain, eyes and facial muscles. These are then translated into input signals, so if you're playing a first-person shooter game online and you want to shoot, instead of clicking your mouse you can clench your jaw to have the same result.
The advantages for gamers are dramatically improved reaction times. "With the NIA, your reflexes don't have to be propagated down your spinal cord, your peripheral nerves, and then the muscles of your hands," says Dr. Michael Schuette, OCZ's VP of technology development. "Instead, it goes instantaneously, so instead of having a 150 or 200 millisecond delay, you can – in an extreme case – get away with a 50-60 millisecond reaction time."
Using the device is a strange experience – after calibrating the NIA, you are given the chance to get used to it by playing a version of classic videogame Pong. On my first attempt, I find myself able to move the paddle to the top and the bottom of the screen by shifting my eyebrows – the facial muscles part - but it takes a bit more time until I'm able to keep it still at various points in between. I may not yet be able to manage playing with the power of my mind – that takes more practice – but it still feels pretty revolutionary.
When I fire it up in Unreal Tournament it is less simple, and I end up unable to stop myself running and firing indiscriminately. Yet it doesn't take long before I'm able to control my shooting, although precise movement is less easy, showing that the NIA clearly takes time, both for you to learn how it works and for it to learn how you work.
Although the device doesn't "read" your mind in the sense that it can understand what you are thinking, the idea is that the more you use it, the more it becomes natural and you think less about what you're doing. "It's like if a fly hits your eyelid", says Dr. Schuette. "You don't even realise there's a fly, but you know you closed your eye. It's nothing you can do on a conscious level." According to regular users, this is what happens when using the NIA – one gamer posting on OCZ's messageboard said: "I take back everything I said. The device does work... It requires exercising the mind until it is as fluid as the fingers. Yes, it could take months and probably will. It may take years, even, to reach perfection. But the opportunity is there."
At the moment, the NIA is the only device of its kind that is available to buy, but it won't be long until it will be one of a number of brain-computer interfaces in the shops. These will include not one but two toys. The first is The Force Trainer, a Star Wars tie-in where would-be Jedis move a ball up and down a tower with their minds. Also getting in on the act is Mattel, which is soon to release the Mindflex, where a plastic ball is guided around a course. For PC gamers, there will also be the Emotive EPOC headset, due to be released this summer.
But brain-computer interfaces are not only making waves in the world of gaming. Scientists have researched the technology for years for medical purposes, chief of which is providing life-changing opportunities for those who suffer from severe paralysis. The Wadsworth Centre in New York State is one place where this type of research has been taking place, but the device it uses was too costly to ever be publicly available. However, working with Cambridge Consultants, it has now managed to create a version costing around $5,000.
The system works by randomly highlighting letters on a screen, while the user focuses on the letter they want to select. "About 300 milliseconds after a person sees or hears a stimulus, there is a spike in their brain activity," says Mark Manasas, from Cambridge Consultants. "So if you or I are standing at a train station, waiting for the 11.05 to Waterloo, if we hear "11.05 to Waterloo now approaching", there will be a little spike in your brain activity." Therefore, when the correct letter flashes up, a sensor cap fitted on the patient's head picks this up, and as a result sentences can be created.
It is a system that has uses beyond word processing. "We've developed an icon-based system which would mean, for example, that if the user is lying in their bed and feeling too hot, they are able to turn down the temperature," says Manasas. "All they would have to do is concentrate on, say, the thermostat icon, which goes into a sub-menu where they can choose between icons for air-conditioning or the heater, and so on."
Looking to the future, scientists believe that brain-computer interfaces could enable paralysed patients to regain the use of their limbs. In an experiment last year, monkeys were fitted with brain implants that could find the neurons that control the wrist muscles. The implant's signals were then connected to the wrist muscles, while the nerves that normally control the wrist were anaesthetised. Despite this, the monkeys were able to bypass the blocked nerves and use the implant to move their wrists.
The technology remains in its infancy – those with disabilities are benefiting from it because it gives them capabilities that were previously impossible, but brain-computer interfaces wouldn't currently have much of a role in the mainstream. Yet as the technology advances, using our brains in this way is likely to become more and more a part of our everyday lives.