JACKI LYDEN, host:
Our next story is all about the power of imagination, and I do mean power. Imagine if the force really was with you. Imagine new toys controlled by brainwaves. It's this week's Science Out of the Box.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: There are two toy companies that plan to release mind-controlled toys by the end of the year, both of them priced at just about a hundred bucks. Mattel's is called Mind Flex, and Uncle Milton has a toy called The Force Trainer. It's Star Wars-themed, and Yoda himself is telling you to…
(Soundbite of film, "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back")
Mr. FRANK OZ (Actor): (As Yoda) Use the force.
LYDEN: The idea is to levitate a ball by focusing your thoughts. We have that toy with us here in the studio, and also in the studio, Andrew Sroufe, who works for Uncle Milton. You've been escorting this toy around the country, I guess. Welcome to the program.
Mr. ANDREW SROUFE (Uncle Milton Industries): Thank you, Jacki.
LYDEN: And also joining us is Jim Sullivan from San Francisco, and he's with NeuroSky, the company that developed the technology that makes both the toys work. Hi there, Jim Sullivan.
Mr. JIM SULLIVAN (NeuroSky): Hello, Jacki.
LYDEN: So Andrew, this is a kind of simple-looking device. Well, it's a plastic tube and with a ball inside it. So, would you give me a demonstration, please?
Mr. SROUFE: Sure. We're going to turn on the base here.
LYDEN: All right.
(Soundbite of electronic toy)
LYDEN: And what I'm wearing on my head is a headset with an arm on it that attaches to your forehead.
Unidentified Voice: Level One.
LYDEN: And I'm going to look at the little ball and try to elevate it with nothing other than my powers of concentration, which are famed, of course. Okay, I'm about to try it.
Unidentified Voice: Good.
LYDEN: Did I do that?
Mr. SROUFE: You did. You just achieved the first level.
LYDEN: The little ball is actually rising. You're sure this isn't rigged, and I'm really doing that?
Mr. SROUFE: I have no remote controls in my pockets. What you're actually controlling is a fan in the base unit that's blowing air to move the ball up and down the tube.
LYDEN: So Jim Sullivan, have you actually seen these things?
Mr. SULLIVAN: I've seen it quite a few times. I've played with it. It's a lot of fun.
LYDEN: How is this actually working?
Mr. SULLIVAN: It's using medical technology that's been kind of reinvented to be applied to consumer and individual applications. It uses traditional EEG technology, which is electroencephalograph, that listens to your brainwaves.
And brainwaves are very faint changes in electrical voltage emanating from your brain. So when you first put the headset on, it took a snapshot of what your attention level was then. And then what happens is from that point on, it looks for increasing attention levels to be able to incorporate that into the game play.
LYDEN: How does it know that I'm paying attention, especially if I'm talking?
Mr. SULLIVAN: That's a good question, and I think you noticed as you started talking, then the ball would start to sink back down again. We apply the signal to some algorithms that have been developed over thousands of hours of subject study and using, you know, people from everywhere, all walks of life and looking for the commonalities when people are paying attention or when they're relaxed and, you know, calm.
And we've created these algorithms that Uncle Milton uses in the Star Force Trainer, and essentially we've been able to make it work on everyone right out of the box.
LYDEN: Now, this is a great deal of fun, but it's a bit of a parlor trick. Are there serious applications for this? I can think of Alzheimer's patients, people like that, who might benefit.
Mr. SULLIVAN: That's one application we see. And we have a lot of people looking at things like that around ADD and Alzheimer's. Other applications include safety. If we can measure your attention level, how alert you are, then there's a number of commercial and even individual applications like the ability to put on a little Bluetooth headset as you're driving home at night monitoring your brainwaves and looking for patterns that would occur prior to the onset of sleep.
So if you start to get into that twilight zone before you start drifting to sleep, it'll give you a signal that hey, you need to pull over. You're starting to drift off.
LYDEN: Jim Sullivan is with NeuroSky, and he joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. And Andrew Sroufe is with Uncle Milton, the company that developed The Force Trainer. May the force be with you both.
Mr. SROUFE: Thanks very much, Jacki.
Mr. SULLIVAN: Thank you, Jacki.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: Switch your targeting computer over to npr.org where you can watch me try out The Force Trainer.