Hands-free video games that rely on brain waves to control the action are being developed by a Toronto company to help people learn to focus or relax their minds.

Interaxon, which specializes in "thought-controlled computing," has created games that train the brain to switch between producing alpha waves, linked to relaxation, and beta waves, linked to focusing.

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Interaxon has created three games, including one in 3D (above), that are due for release later this year. One or two of the games will be available as a mobile app. ((Lynne Robson/CBC))

A gamer wears a headband with sensors that contacts his or her forehead and tries to relax or focus on demand.

In a golf video game, the player relaxes to bring the club back, and then focuses to swing. The ball's trajectory depends on how well you relax, focus, and switch between the two.

"You can see how this would be useful for a quick break at work [or] when you get home, to help you unwind, to help you understand how to relax," said Ariel Garten, CEO of Interaxon.

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A headband with sensors contacts the gamer's forehead to measure brain waves. In this case, it is worn by Ariel Garten, CEO of Interaxon. ((Lynne Robson/CBC) )

"You can also see how this would be very useful at work, to help you focus, train in the morning."

Interaxon has created three games, including one in 3D, that are due for release later this year. One or two of the games will be available as a mobile app.

Potential treatment for ADD

Garten believes her company's technology may have the potential to help people with neurological disorders such as attention deficit disorder.

She said kids with attention deficit disorder are known to have a lower proportion of beta waves compared to kids with normal brains.

"So we're creating games that kids play that actually improve their focus state."

Interaxon's competition

Other companies have already have thought-controlled games systems on the market, including:

  • NeuroSky, which makes the headsets used by Interaxon. It has an app store featuring games, mental exercises and utilities.
  • Emotiv Systems Inc., which sells a $300 headset that works with both specially-designed games in the company's app store or as an alternate controller for PC games.
  • Fort Washington, Pa.-based SmartBrain Technology uses brain wave measurement technology with regular Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox video games. The regular controller only works optimally when the player maintains a "desired brain state."

Garten is working with Dr. Umesh Jain, a child psychiatrist at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the Hospital for Sick Children, who is trying to get a grant to test whether Interaxon's games could help kids with ADD.

"It's a very innovative strategy in terms of making it like a video game," Jain said.

But questions remain about how effective the brain training might actually be, he said.

"Does that mean I can see you paying attention better at school? Does that mean that those changes, if they do happen will last? Have you fundamentally found a way of changing the nature of the way the circuits of the brain function?"

Interaxon's technology was originally developed in the laboratory of University of Toronto computer engineering professor Steve Mann, who is Garten's former mentor. It works with a brain-reading sensor headset developed by San Jose, Calif.-based NeuroSky.

Interaxon was originally focused mainly on controlling devices such as lights with your mind. But while developing that technology, the team realized its potential for brain training.

Garten said the game is just one delivery system for the technology and her company has already created thought controlled blenders and toasters. As the technology improves, she predicted it would enable applications such as lights that automatically get brighter when someone is focused on reading the paper or turns on happy or soothing music depending on a person's mood.

A decade down the road, she said, "thought controlled technology is how we're going to be interacting with all aspects of our environment on a daily basis."

With files from Lynne Robson and Marijka Hurko