Students play video game with their minds at Duke

dblustein@newsobserver.comJune 20, 2013 

— Sam Murphy of Cary, 14, stared at the screen with intense concentration. Her onscreen paddle quickly shot down to intercept a ball about to pass by.

The video game was Pong, but this is hardly the classic arcade version. Sam was motionless.

She was controlling the paddle with her mind.

“I think this is like the coolest thing ever,” Sam said. “I’m just thinking about it, and it’s going up.”

Sam and her opponent, Eli Wilber, 22, a recent Duke University graduate, wore wireless electrode caps that captured the electrical activity from the neurons in their brains to control the Pong paddles onscreen.

Sam is a camper and Wilber a counselor at Duke’s Summer Science Sleuths, a camp that aims to push high school students toward careers in science.

“Our role is to make science so fun, so much fun, and so interesting so they can’t not consider science,” said Chris Adamczyk, director of the program and the executive director of the Duke Center for Science Education.

The mind control Pong game was developed by David Schwarz, a Duke Ph.D. student excited to share his work with budding young scientists. To prepare for the campers, Schwarz tested the Pong activity in his lab on fellow students, some he had to pry away from the addictive mind-control game.

“The first time I played, I played for like an hour and a half without stopping,” said Vivek Subramanian, 23, who assisted Schwarz with the program.

“It’s supposed to be fun, first and foremost,” Schwarz said.

And it is.

“That was so much fun, oh my gosh, I’ve never done anything like that before”, said Cullen Morgan, a 10th grader from Wilmington.

But the program is also educational, giving students an introduction to neuroscience and the workings of a brain-machine interface, a device that can be controlled by just thinking.

The students first don headgear with spider-like arms, each containing a saline-soaked, felt-padded electrode. Some of the longer haired campers needed a bit of electrode wiggling and extra saline to make good contact. An onscreen diagram showed each electrode turn green when it was in the right place.

“1, 2, 3, go!” exclaimed Subramanian as he clicked to begin a brain training session.

Katy McNamara, 15, of Chapel Hill began repeatedly nodding her head. As she moved, the electrode cap sent her brain activity to the computer. The signal from her brain was linked to the control for moving the paddle down. When she reproduced the action, the paddle would drop.

“Oh, that is so cool!” said her opponent, Lehua Miller, 15, of San Diego, when she first saw the paddle move after the training was complete.

During the game, Katy vigorously nodded her head and blinked her eyes to move her paddle down and up. The paddle movement was erratic at first, but with a bit of practice – and a lot of concentration – the paddle moved with ease.

Eventually, some of the students could just imagine their physical action and the paddle would respond onscreen. “Wow, that’s really good. I’m really impressed,” said Schwarz, as one student made the paddle move while sitting motionless, imagining a leg kick.

Schwarz works in the lab of Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a pioneer in capturing brain activity to control machines. In 1999, the Nicolelis lab developed a way for a rat to control a robot arm with its mind. And in 2011, it showed off a monkey that could move a computer cursor on screen just by thinking. The monkey could even “feel” textures on the screen that were conveyed via stimulation to its brain.

The mind-control Pong game is just a simple example of the power of technology that may one day let the paralyzed walk. The lab’s goal is to have a paralyzed person control an exoskeleton with her brain to perform the opening kickoff at soccer’s World Cup next year in Brazil, said Dr. Laura Oliveira, a senior research scientist in the Nicolelis lab.

“Our lab is interested to make it possible for paralyzed people to recover independence,” Oliveira said.

Schwarz hopes to streamline his game setup for others to use. When he graduates, he wants to continue to develop science outreach and use video games as a teaching tool.

The Pong game is important because it shows a real-world use for the research, he said.

And it really resonated with the students.

“Every year we do something that’s really crazy, just mind blowing,” said third-year camper Jourdan Bethea, 16, of Wilmington.

This year that something was Schwarz’s game of mind-control Pong.

Blustein: 919-829-4627

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