In the bays of CES, the electronics show which takes place from Tuesday January 7 to Friday January 10 in Las Vegas, we played on a computer in a surprising way: by the simple force of the brain, without any joystick , no keyboard, no mouse. To do this, we put on what looks like a kind of tennis headband with eight small, very light electrodes, placed on the back of the skull, which capture brain waves. And we were able to shoot ducks in mid flight, just by focusing our visual attention on them. An innovation that we owe to the French start-up Nextmind, based in Paris.
The shooting seemed difficult at first, but after five minutes we got there pretty easily. The experience turned out to be quite amusing but tainted by the slowness of the shots: more than a second of latency in our case. “ After training, the best players manage to bring this time down to less than a tenth of a second, but it remains significantly slower than a lever shot “, says Gwendal Kerdavid, co-founder of the company.
Replace or complete the joystick
In the current state of technology, the headband could act as the main control device for games with contemplative gameplay, but for a first person shooter (FPS) game, for example, it is still far too much slow. It is, however, able to complete the controller, even in games requiring great responsiveness: we were able to verify this by trying another small platform game, imagined as the first by Nextmind.
The goal is to move a character with the joystick, while killing enemies by the force of visual attention. A rather promising experience, because mental interactions are particularly natural, more than the use of a button – at least for players of modest level like us, often embarrassed by the too great richness of the joystick buttons.
The Nextmind banner is still far from being finalized. The start-up is working to speed up its reaction times and optimize its placement on the skull, which still requires a lot of precautions, especially when you have a lot of hair. The first time we put on the headband, it is still necessary to “calibrate” it by successively looking at ten points in the image and trying to close the small triangles that appear in their center, by force of thought.
The process takes a minute or two. “Not all brains work in the same way, but we hope to find a model that works for everyone and eliminates this step”, specifies Gwendal Kerdavid.
Not yet for the general public
A pre-version of the Nextmind banner will be marketed in April through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. It will be intended for video game developers, because the start-up does not want to replace the publishers. “It is not our job to imagine the various ways in which this device could find its place in the gameplay of video games. “
Unless the company is taken over by a giant virtual reality (VR) headset, all of which are working on alternative control devices like eye tracking. Nextmind technology could then find its place on the back of the headband of an RV helmet. Facebook, the parent company of the helmet manufacturer Oculus, also bought in September 2019 Ctrl-Labs, a start-up creator of a bracelet that you put on your wrist, and that intercepts command signals traveling from the brain in hand.
Three key innovations
Why is NextMind's technology only emerging today, ten years after the release of Mattel's Mindflex game, which was already able to push a ball through the brain waves? Because the banner of the French start-up confers incomparably finer control than that of Mattel, which was equipped with only one command: “on-off”. To read visual attention in space, ten years of scientific research were necessary.
“The first discovery was psychophysical: it was necessary to understand the detailed functioning of the visual cortex”says Gwendal Kerdavid.
“The second was material: we needed more sensitive EKGs. We have also made our contribution to the building by creating electrodes with innovative materials. The third innovation was algorithmic: it was necessary to decode the intentions of the player. To do this, we use the new possibilities made possible by deep learning, deep learning. “
Twenty people are working on the success of Nextmind today, including several researchers from Normale sup and the CNRS. A prestigious pedigree for a promising technology.