With Your Brain Waves and Virtual Reality, ‘The Matrix’ May Be Just Around the Corner
Earlier this year, we reported on some of the alternately weird and inspired devices created in pursuit of immersive virtual reality. While it was an interesting list that included giant hamster wheels and levitating whole body suspension kits, all of it fell well short of The Matrix-like immersion. For the latter, you would probably need to interface directly with a person’s brain, intercepting thoughts directly at their source and translating them into movement within a virtual world. That may sound farfetched, but a little-known startup called Neurable is already making significant progress with just such a rig.
Like many avant-garde technologies, Neurable was able to create its brain-computer interfaces thanks to synergistic developments in two unrelated fields – in this case, electroencephalography (EEG) and virtual reality. For those unfamiliar with EEG, it’s the process of recording a person’s brain waves through electrodes attached directly to the skull. It’s a surprisingly old technology, dating back to the late 1800s, and for much of its existence, not a particularly enlightening one.
It’s relatively easy to detect electrical impulses emanating from a brain. But the signal is so clouded by artifacts, it’s difficult to make much sense of the data. EEG has proven effective at detecting general brain phenomenon, such as whether a person was sleeping or having a grand mal seizure. It’s all but useless for more specific brain patterns, like recognizing if you were thinking of a horse or an elephant. EEG has garnered slightly more utility as a neurofeedback device, helping people dial in more productive brain states. For instance, it’s relatively easy for an EEG machine to discriminate between a focused state of mind and a distracted one. In turn, that knowledge can be used to aid in improving focus.
The story of EEG became more interesting in the last few decades, with advent of so-called deep neural networks and other advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence. These pattern-recognizing systems have proven immensely useful in interpreting EEG data, weeding out the noise and identifying salient attributes. They’ve enabled EEG to discriminate between hitherto unrecognizable brain activity, such as your emotional state, or whether you’re startled or thinking of your home. Meanwhile, the field of virtual reality has been undergoing rapid progress of its own, with important developments in miniaturization, graphics processing, and scalability.
EEG holds the potential to unlock truly immersive VR by capturing a person’s brain waves while they are in the VR world and translating those signals into character-driven movement. At this point, Neurable’s technology is still quite nescient; it provides little more than a kind of mouse cursor for the user to select different objects within a VR world. Since this can already be done effectively with eye-tracking, it’s not a practical development in and of itself. But if Neurable can advance the technology to tasks like enabling a character to jump or run, just by thinking about them, it would be a game changer — both literally and metaphorically.