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How to Fly a Model Helicopter With Your Brain and Other Adventures in EEG Gaming

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How to Fly a Model Helicopter With Your Brain and Other Adventures in EEG Gaming

How to Fly a Model Helicopter With Your Brain and Other Adventures in EEG Gaming

As audiences for the 2013 “Carrie” re-make are finding out in theaters across the country, the power to move things with your mind can be hazardous to one’s well-being and pretty much everyone else’s, too.

My own experience with telekinesis, by contrast, was pretty tame.

In order to get the helicopter to fly, reporter Amy Standen, wearing a headset that captures her brain waves, has to concentrate on a single thought. She doesn’t have to think about the helicopter flying; it can be any thought, but she can’t be distracted and think, “Wow,” once the helicopter starts to fly.

Technically, I’d have a hard time doing this without the use of an EEG headset, in this case the MindWave Mobile, which is made by a San Jose company called NeuroSky.


The MindWave Mobile—much like two other mobile brain-wave-sensing devices called the Emotiv and Interaxon—is a pared-down version of something you’ve seen in science fiction movies anytime someone’s head is covered in electrodes. It’s an EEG, or electroencephalogram.

The EEG is a device that measures electrical activity inside the brain. It’s good at revealing patterns, like what happens during an epileptic seizure, or during sleep. (Sleep scientists using an EEG discovered the REM, or rapid eye movement state.) It can also detect patterns associated with certain emotional states.

In recent years, these headsets have gotten easier to use and much less expensive; the MindWave Mobile costs $99. And this has encouraged developers to come up with ways to harness them for fun, by connecting mobile EEG headsets to other consumer devices like video games, smartphones and—as you see in the video above—miniature helicopters.

Johnny Liu, who directs the developer program at NeuroSky, came into the KQED studios recently to show me how to use a headset in combination with the Puzzlebox Orbit Brain-Controlled Helicopter. It’s a spherical cage about eight inches in diameter containing three small propellers. Liu positioned the headset’s single sensor over his forehead and powered up an iPad. Then, he just sat there.

The helicopter waits for the brain waves to kick in. (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)
The helicopter waits for the brain waves to kick in. (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

“I’m driving up my attention level,” he explained.

Soon we had proof: A red bar on the iPad screen began to rise. When it passed the three-quarters mark, the helicopter’s propellers began to whir as the Orbit lifted from the table.

Telekinesis is a lot harder than it looks.

When it was my turn, Liu told me to pick something, anything, to focus on. I thought about the fog I’d seen on a walk that morning. Nothing. I fixedly pictured my breakfast. Zilch.

“How about you just try thinking about the helicopter?” Liu suggested.

It worked! For about three seconds. (The video above makes it look as if the helicopter flew after I focused on fog; that’s a flattering by-product of Instagram’s 15-second video limit.)

You can’t get frustrated with the helicopter, it turns out, because that’s different from concentration. You have to calmly focus on it, really hard.

“Imagine,” Liu coached, “that you actually have telekinetic powers.”

Success: six seconds.

Fortunately for the aerodynamically challenged, there are other brain training devices in development. One is the NeuroDisco, a prototype computer program that can be used with an EEG headset. It’s designed by the composer-husband and neuroscientist-wife team of Richard and Erica Warp, along with designer Chung-Hay Luk.

The NeuroDisco reads brainwaves from an EEG headset called the Emotiv, whose 16 sensors must be carefully positioned around the temples and the back of your head.

(Fruitlessly, in my case. Apparently I have too much hair—or not enough brain. The Emotiv failed to pick up a signal.)

Instead of flying a helicopter, the Emotive feeds brain signals wirelessly into a laptop, where the NeuroDisco, a computer program designed by Richard in composing software called Max/MSP, translates the brain’s electrical patterns into music.

The underlying beat corresponds to the type of emotional state. The Emotiv can’t read much of the range of human emotion, but it can, says Erica, “differentiate an excited state from a meditative state from a frustrated state, for example.”

Erica Warp explains to me how the NeuroDisco works. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)
Erica Warp explains to me how the NeuroDisco works. (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

In a “frustrated” state, the beat is pounding and loud, “like a Nine Inch Nails song,” Richard says. As you become calmer and more meditative, the beat becomes softer and recedes.

The notes, meanwhile, correspond to the intensity, or “push” of the emotional state. The stronger your meditative state becomes, for instance, the closer the notes come together, the more “shimmery” the music sounds. A more distracted, less focused state produces tones that are farther away from each other and more discordant.

Richard, a former club-goer from London, says he wanted NeuroDisco’s music to be “subtle” and pleasant enough that a user might keep working with it, or as Richard puts it, “communing” with it. The idea is that over time, users will learn how to compose music by subtly changing their brain states, maybe increasing the intensity of their meditative states, for example.

Key to this learning process is the experience of biofeedback, where seeing a helicopter lift or hearing music shift tells the user in real time what his or her brain is doing and how it’s changing.

“That’s how you would train to be a brain musician,” says Richard. Instead of listening to the sounds the piano produces when you hit the keys, “you’re training to control your mental processes.”

Richard says he’s always been an anxious person. The desire to feel more grounded is part of what led him to work on this project.

“I was interested in creating an environment where people can really commune with their internal state,” he says.

But is more technology really what we need to help us relax? Haven’t people been communing with their internal states without technology for thousands of years?

At this, Warp laughs.

“You’re doing the same thing as a meditator, a Buddhist monk might do. It’s just we in the West maybe need a device to do it.”

I asked that question of Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist who studies distraction and technology at University of California-San Francisco: Is technology what we need to help us relax? What about taking a walk, or actually learning to meditate?

Gazzaley points out that for some people, that’s a lot to ask, particularly meditation.

“A lot of people find it really hard to get started, because they’re not very good at it in the beginning,” he says. EEG games can help engage those people by offering tools they’re comfortable with.

Perhaps for some, he adds, EEG feedback could one day be diagnostic—even therapeutic.

“Imagine your child is diagnosed with ADHD,” says Gazzaley, “and you take them to the doctor. Instead of being given a box of pills, they put an EEG cap on and they play a video game that looks at how they pay attention to relevant information, how they ignore information, how they sustain attention, how they deal with multiple tasks.”

Then, that data gets turned into a game—one the child will actually want to play—that can train him or her to focus more.

“Over time, they might see ‘wow, we’ve corrected those things and we didn’t need medication,’ or ‘we needed a lot less medication.’”


As for the rest of us, Gazzaley says, think of EEG games as baby steps toward learning new ways of calming down. Technology helped get us into this mess, maybe technology can help get us out.

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