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Bye-bye, mouse. Hello, mind control

Maria Korolov | Nov. 27, 2012
When workplace computers moved beyond command-line interfaces to the mouse-and-windows-based graphical user interface, that was a major advance in usability. And the command line itself was a big improvement over the punch cards and tape that came before.

The Intific and Emotiv headsets can be used to play video games with your mind. But these mind reading devices can do more than just connect with computers. NeuroSky, for example, is the maker of the technology behind the Stars Wars Force Trainer and Mattel's MindFlex Duel game, both of which allow players to levitate balls with the power of their minds.

That doesn't mean that office workers can sit back, think about the sentences they want to write, and have them magically appear on the screen. "If you're an able-bodied individual, typing words on a keyboard is just so much quicker and more reliable than doing it with the brain control interfaces," says MIT Media Lab's Holtzman.

A paralyzed person may benefit greatly from being able to pick out letters or move a paintbrush simply by thinking about it, he says. And moving a racecar around a track with your mind is a fun parlor trick. But it's still easier just to use a real paintbrush, or simply pick up the car with your hands and move it around.

But where mind reading can directly benefit an office worker is in picking up the user's mood, he says.

For example, if the user is stressed or in a rush, a mailbox could sort itself to put the priority emails at the top -- then highlight the fun ones from friends when the user is relaxed.

"And if I'm tense and concentrating, it may delay my text alerts and messages instead of interrupting me," he says.

And it's not just facial expressions or mind scans that can be used to make computers switch modes. Today's smartphones and tablets are equipped with a variety of sensors, including GPS trackers, clocks, microphones, accelerometers, gyroscopes and compasses that can tell the device if it's moving, how it's being held, where it's located, what time of day it is, and much more.

For example, says Hamid Najafi, senior director of application engineering at sensor technology company InvenSense, a smartphone should be able to tell when the user is in a movie theater or on an airplane, or working out in a gym, or asleep, or tied up in a meeting. It could automatically switch to silent mode in theaters and during meetings, he says.

"And there are many, many other tasks the phone can do if it intelligently integrates the inputs from all sensors and becomes an active companion to you, rather than just a passive device that you can access when needed," he says.

Business adoption lags

According to David Hogue, a professor of psychology who focuses on user experience at San Francisco State University, business use typically lags behind other applications for new interfaces. "You'd think business is the leader, but what people are doing at home is setting their expectations," he says.


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