CES - IBM, Emotiv show advances in virtual reality worlds

Technology allows users to control an avatar using brain signals transmitted wirelessly to a PC

Hundreds of products at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) here are devoted to new ways to input data to a PC or gaming console, including a variety of inputs via voice commands or gestures that are registered via video detection.

But another way demonstrated at CES is the ability to wirelessly transmit the brain's electronic signals, including emotions and cognitions, from sensors on a person's head to a PC.

Emotiv Systems, an IBM partner, demonstrated an alpha version of a neural input device that it plans to unveil as a consumer product at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next month.

IBM believes that such neural input can be an important part of a broad range of virtual reality uses for industry, not just for games, said Dave Kamalsky, project manager for virtual worlds research at IBM. Next to the Emotiv demonstration, IBM was showing a variety of virtual reality (VR) systems, including Second Life and Activeworlds, that businesses can use for training employees, holding meetings and demonstrating products to consumers.

Emotiv's working product name is the Emotiv Headset, which could sell for US$200 to US$300, similar to the cost of a high-end handheld game controller, said Patrick McGill, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based start-up.

The alpha version includes about a dozen sensors that pick up a brain's signals, which are transmitted via a 2.4-GHz wireless signal, said Emotiv product engineer Marco Della Torre. He demonstrated the alpha version while wearing the sensors that picked up his eye movements, eye blinks, smiles and frowns, which were shown the PC and a large display at the Emotiv booth. Each facial gesture was quickly and accurately recorded on a large graphical representation of a face on the display.

In addition to the simpler facial expressions, Della Torre was able to transmit the brain's affective impulses, such as calm or excited (which involves a group of facial movements) and even cognitions. The cognitions (conscious control) that Della Torre demonstrated were the ability to make an animated cube on the display move up or down or spin in space. He was able to train the software to interpret the cognition in less than 20 seconds.

While such capabilities might seem rudimentary, the control of the animated cubicle could eventually be extended to "think" whether an avatar in a virtual world should gesture with face or hands, shake someone's hand, or even throw a ball, Della Torre said. By comparison, in Second Life, many controls of an avatar are now possible, including facial expressions and walking and even flying, but all must be input via a keyboard.

Della Torre said many small companies have been working with neural input technologies for years, including helping the disabled, but he said Emotiv hopes to be one of the first to market with a device that has a broad range of capabilities.

IBM's partnership with Emotiv has been active for less than a year. IBM demonstrated its interest in VR at CES a year ago and was flooded with interest by visitors, Kamalsky said. This year, the technology is more advanced, and interest has still been very high. At IBM, about 5,000 people have used a variety of VR systems for internal meetings, he said.

For those workers, IBM recently licensed technology from Activeworlds to hold virtual meetings and other sessions privately and securely without impositions by uninvited guests, he said.

Samy Farao, founder of Peace City TV in California, was also demonstrating VR as an IBM partner to help describe the business applications of the technology to visitors. Farao said he has been working in virtual reality for 10 years. He has helped create entire worlds for real estate businesses that want to take projects from inception to completion, including places for customers to visit and then see the final product. In another application, a TV station was designed, including separate rooms for the inceptions of stories, then editing them and completing them for broadcast.

Farao said IBM is trying to help businesses see that some VR systems might be more appropriate for certain business users than others. He estimated there are about 200 virtual worlds, in addition to Second Life and Activeworlds.

Over the 10 years, Farao said VR technology has progressed tremendously, moving from two dimensions of visual perspective to three dimensions. "It's almost like when Da Vinci did The Last Supper with perspective in the painting, something that took hundreds of years of art to reach," he said.

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