This week on Neurogadget, we’re reviewing the MindWave Mobile headset, one of the most popular consumer brain-computer interfaces available on the market. Powered by NeuroSky’s Brainwave Technology, the Mindwave Mobile uses a single sensor positioned on the forehead to allow you to view your brainwaves in real time. Generously provided by NeuroSky, our review unit is a MindWave Mobile: MyndPlay Bundle, which comes with an app that allows the user to control the flow of four ‘brain powered’ movies with their thoughts.

NeuroSky Technology

Longtime readers of Neurogadget probably need no explanation as to how the technology works, and can safely skip this section. For those that aren’t, or would like an explanation anyway, this is how it happens:

Your brain is constantly producing electrical signals while it operates, as the cellular components of the brain (neurons) communicate with each other. At a macro scale, they produce a range of frequencies that scientists have found relate to particular mental states. For example, a sleeping person’s brain produces an abundance of delta waves, whereas an alert and awake person concentrating hard on something will produce far more beta waves.

The Mindwave headset picks up your brain’s electrical activity and divides the signal by frequency into various types of waves, allowing it to infer your mental state. For the most of the non-scientific apps however, it primarily reads how relaxed (as measured by alpha/theta waves) or concentrated (as measured by beta/gamma waves) you are.

Unfortunately your body makes a lot of other electrical noise, in addition to the activity coming from your brain. For this reason there is a ‘reference’ contact, in the form of a clip that attaches to your earlobe, which allows the headset to filter out non-brain related electrical activity.

Hardware

The Mindwave headset is a slim, matte black/light blue plastic device which fits comfortably, if not unobtrusively, over your left ear. The primary sensor sits on your forehead pretty comfortably, although it will take a minute or two to adjust it the first time you put it on. The ear clip is likewise pretty comfortable, and the whole apparatus has the advantage of easily allowing you to wear over-ear headphones at the same time if you so choose.

It connects via bluetooth to the device of your choice, and works with most modern operating systems (Windows xp or newer, Mac OS X 10.6.5 or newer) and mobile devices running android or iOS. It’s battery life is rated at 8-10 hours with a single AAA battery.

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Installation

Installation and setup are a breeze, mostly because there is very little to set up. Pairing the Mindwave up to your device via bluetooth requires almost no effort, and after that all that remains is downloading the bundled apps, or simply installing them with the included CD if the device isn’t a mobile of some kind.

Applications

The MindWave mobile comes bundled with a few applications and there are many available, both free and paid, in the NeuroSky Online Store, and also the Apple and Android app stores.

Right off the bat we were impressed by the Mindwave’s responsiveness, even to fairly subtle mental/emotional states. This is fairly apparent even in the tutorial, but becomes most obvious in one of the simplest app bundled with the headset, the Brainwave Visualizer. We noted that concentration in particular responds immediately and obviously to mental distractions; even something as simple as turning away for a moment to check the time, or look around for the source of a noise behind you is pretty clearly reflected in concentration as the Mindwave measures it.

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Screenshot of the Brainwave Visualizer application

As for the rest of the bundled apps, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Due to the nature of the MindWave’s sensor, there are only three inputs:

  • concentration/no-concentration
  • meditation/non-meditation
  • and blinking.

Some apps use this constrained set of inputs gracefully, and some not so well.

As stated earlier, the Brainwave Visualiser, which actually shows all (or more at least) of the signal picked up by the headset is easily the most accessible app, displaying brainwave data in three ways (raw electrical signal, decomposed signal frequencies as a bar graph, and the same frequencies in a circular ‘radar’ style dish with associated wave-types labeled). It even has thorough, unobtrusive informational popups placed throughout the interface so anyone wondering what a particular part of the image they are seeing means can easily find out. It also has a neat function that pairs up with iTunes to make a basic recording of how your brain responds to a song, and allows you to play these recordings back later.

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A screenshot of Meditation Journal, the most useful included software

The Meditation Journal app is probably the most useful included software, which while simple still manages to give you the tools to meaningfully view your brainwave data over time. It isn’t too flashy, anything it can do other than graph your progress in previous sessions the brainwave visualizer can do much prettier, but it is genuinely useful for those interested in improving focus/relaxation.

Another enjoyable app is Man.Up, a simple platformer game that rather than being controlled entirely by your brain uses the signals gathered by the mindwave to alter the circumstances of the player. The player bounces on platforms, which disappear after the first landing, and scrolls infinitely upwards trying to go as far as possible. Movement left and right are controlled by the arrow keys, but how high the player bounces every time they hit a platform hinges on how concentrated you are, and how wide (or tiny) the platforms are reflects how relaxed you are while playing. Blinking also Although simple, it is very enjoyable, and a good example of how simple brain control can enhance a gameplay experience.

Like Man.Up the other two bundled apps are games, but unlike Man.Up they failed to impress. Zombie Pop is a game where you concentrate to inflate zombie’s heads, then blink to burst them at the right time. If this sounds like a fairly shallow mechanic, then you are not far wrong: the game has no other means of control (zombies come to you on a conveyer belt, you are told when to concentrate and when to blink to pop them) and you rapidly feel like a zombie yourself after doing the same thing over and over and over again.

We had higher hopes for MyndPlay, the most prominently advertised app in the bundle. Allowing you to ‘edit the movie with your brain’, the idea is to watch a film, then at strategic points use your mind to alter the flow of the action as it happens. It’s a great idea, but this iteration of it was lacking in polish and even basic functionality. The films had jumpy, obvious cuts from normal ‘movie’ time to ‘concentrate here’ junctures, not to mention having no way of doing basic things like skipping forwards or backwards in a single clip.

Naturally, the bundled apps are just a taste of the headset’s capabilities. NeuroSky’s online store offers dozens of additional games and educational applications for downloads and there’s many more for iOS devices such as the artistic games from MindGames: the dream-manipulator W.I.L.D. and the zombie-feeder/spoon-bender 28 Spoons Later (click on the links to read our hands-on reviews).

Verdict

The Mindwave Mobile is an impressive and convincingly responsive brain-computer interface. The technology is still in its infancybut despite reservations over the less than stellar bundled apps, the Mindwave Mobile is an excellent piece of tech. The hardware is solid, and it is obvious that when properly utilized by good software – or even combined with other hardwares like the Puzzlebox Orbit helicopter – this translates to an interesting, enjoyable, and even potentially useful as a health tool. While the $99.95 price tag (MindWave headset only) can be seen as a reasonable price for this new technology, $129 for the MyndPlay bundle could be little daunting for someone just looking for a nifty toy. But for the dedicated gadget lover or BCI enthusiast, we would say it’s money well spent. Also we would like to take the opportunity to thank Neurosky for providing us a review unit of the headset.

The MindWave Mobile and additional applications for the headset are available online at the NeuroSky store.