Clarke's Third Law

Today I want to take a break from breaking news and tell you about the new love of my life: my Emotiv EPOC neuroheadset.

Love at first sight.

This thing costs $299, and it is worth every penny. It uses 14 sensors positioned around my scalp to create a wireless EEG interface between my brain and my computer. I can move objects onscreen by thinking about it. I can click the mouse by thinking “click.” I can watch real-time video maps of my brain activity as I think about different ideas. I can summon specific feelings to navigate through photo albums sorted by emotion.

In short, the future is here, and it is awesome.

Brain-machine interfaces aren’t exactly earth-shaking news anymore, I know. I’ve written here about thought-controlled cursors, and here about sensory feedback systems that allow monkeys to control virtual hands and literally feel virtual textures. But this device makes this technology available and (relatively) affordable for me – and for you.

And we can do anything we want with it.

Are ya with me here?


For instance, I spent most of last night watching waves of neural communication coruscate across my brain as I meditated, imagined, planned, observed, understood, realized, believed and calculated. I watched my left and right hemispheres signal to one another, like two great whales exchanging songs across an ocean, as they worked together to complete tasks. I watched tsunamis of synchronized activation blaze across the screen as disparate thoughts coalesced into dawning realizations. I watched congeries of light dance in the darkness as I thought, “I believe” or “I trust” or “I love.”

And that was just our first night together.

This is what I was talking about when I said we need devices that create real-time feedback loops between our brains and our computers, so we can watch the patterns our thoughts generate as we’re thinking them – the most intimate link ever between human consciousness and technology. We’re hurtling toward the culmination of a process that began millions of years ago in Africa; when one ape, a little smarter than his cousins, looked down at a rock and thought, “I want to use that for something.”

So, guess what this device is being used for right now. Well, for one thing, it’s providing easy computer access to people with physical disabilities, which is fantastic – but other than that, it’s mainly being marketed as a new gimmick for controlling video games.

Come on, people – we can dream so much bigger than this.

By way of inspiration, here’s my all-time favorite short sci-fi story, Exhalation by Ted Chiang. It’ll tell you everything you want to know about my aspirations.

And here’s a little song to set the mood.

Welcome to the Age of Technosophy. Let’s see where our imaginations take us.

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6 Responses to “Clarke's Third Law”

  1. Exciting stuff indeed, and as you say, we are just scratching the surface of what’s possible here – can’t wait to see what the hackers start making with this kind of thing.

    Also – amazing short story – thanks for posting the link to that. Really incredible.

    • Ben says:

      There’s some more info on the hackers on the technosophy Facebook page, and I’ve seen found some very cool video demos on YouTube – one guy uses tiny face movements to tell a little robot to walk back and forth, and another guy has trained a webcam to look around the room in synchrony with the direction of his gaze.

      The community of EPOC users is in its infancy – all it needs to find its legs right now is a few bright & bored compsci students. Once those kids start writing algorithms to convert patterns in the EEG data into a shareable library of standard outputs, interest will grow. And as soon a few other indie developers start writing cool software based on that library, the community will take off running. I’m really really excited.

      I mean, sure it’d be swell to be able to buy Emotiv’s $750 or $2500 headset developer licenses – but even then you’re still gonna pay for additional software – plus you’re working within a proprietary, closed-source development model. And I’m all for Emotiv making as much money as they can – in fact, I think they stand to make quite a bit more if they just loosen up the reins and let indie developers go nuts with their technology. Which – face it, guys – is what’s already happening anyway.

      Anyway, yeah, isn’t Ted Chiang brilliant? He’s only published 12 stories since 1990, and every one of them is a beautiful and exotic thought experiment. You can read most of the others right here.

  2. Dominik says:

    Awesome blog!

    Getting this headset has been on my mind over the last month, and I’m looking forward to getting it as a little present to myself.

    Have you tried typing with it yet, and if so how do you find the experience? I’ve read some reviews of folks being able to outperform manual typing, though others have said that it does take a considerable amount of time to get on par with manual typing.

    • Ben says:

      Typing by thought is either still extremely buggy or not possible – I’m still parsing the exact relationships and boundaries between problems with hardware, software, and wetware. I’ve been using a free program called Click-N-Type.

  3. Quora says:

    Could a brain hemorrhage influence colour in dreams?…

    Thanks for sharing more about your son’s dreams, Dawn. It sounds like he had these lucid dreaming abilities since childhood, which makes me think that the mental techniques necessary to revisit a persistent dream world are probably teachable (in theor…

  4. […] been used to help people with disabilities control computers, and even help home users get an up-close look at their own brain […]

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