Brain could be gaming frontier

Neurogaming uses brain waves to make action on screen

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SAN FRANCISCO — Lat Ware pauses to straighten his jacket and organize his chaotic mind. For Ware, who has attention deficit disorder, standing in the halls of a gaming conference as people rush by can feel like being in a hurricane of humanity.

He takes a deep breath before he steps up to a passer-by to pose the question he has already asked at least 100 times today.

"Excuse me," Ware says. "Would you like to throw trucks with your mind?"

The target's face goes through a range of expressions, trying to formulate the appropriate response to the fantastical offer before settling on an uncertain reply.

"Um, suuuuuure …" says Natalia Veselova, who had come from Russia to attend the Game Developers Conference in March.

Ware, 29, is recruiting people to try the new video game he has developed. He leads Veselova to a table where he sits her down in front of a laptop next to other players and explains his game, "Throw Trucks With Your Mind."

He slides a headset onto her that reads brain waves that indicate levels of calm and focus. Players must maximize both states of mind by concentrating on a single thought, which then allows them to pick up and hurl objects at opponents.

"It's an ultra-violent meditative competitive game," Ware deadpans.

For several minutes Veselova struggles to block out distractions and relax. Just when she seems ready to give up, pink and blue bars on the screen begin to spike. A swirling beam of light shoots from the hand of her avatar toward a rock in the middle of the screen that wiggles, rises and then goes flying toward an opponent, narrowly missing.

Her eyes go wide, and then a smile spreads across her face. Ware steps back with his own look of satisfaction.

The development of "Throw Trucks" places Ware on a frontier where brain science and video game developers have just begun to cross paths. The emerging field has been dubbed "neurogaming."

Although the market for neurogaming is lightly populated now, the neuroscience industry is hoping that such games could be a catalyst that turns brain-wave-reading gadgets into mainstream consumer products.

For Ware, though, the achievement is far more personal. "Throw Trucks" is the realization of an idea he first got as a teenager when he underwent an experimental treatment for ADD that involved streaming his brain waves into a computer. As he sat in a doctor's office, he began to wonder:

"If my brain waves can be fed into a computer so I can learn to manipulate them, what else could I do with them?"

Having ADD means that Ware's brain believes at times that every single thing is demanding his full attention. Over the years, Ware has learned to summon all his energy to focus on one thing that actually matters at that moment.

Perversely, he can then become so obsessed with that thing, it becomes impossible for anyone or anything else to get his attention.

Growing up in Chapel Hill, N.C., Ware seemed to struggle with social relationships. After being held back one year for kindergarten, he was diagnosed with the disorder. He would try various drugs such as Ritalin that would help him focus, but leave him foggy and sap his creativity.

Ware's parents kept researching other strategies, and when he was a teenager they heard about a new treatment called neurofeedback therapy. The idea is to let patients watch a computer screen that displays brain waves so they can learn to slow down or speed up their brain waves to achieve greater calm and focus.

He only took a few treatments, in part because it was expensive — the equipment back then cost providers thousands of dollars. But like so many other things in technology, the cost of brain wave-reading sensors has plummeted.

"The equipment you needed used to fill up a whole room," said Dr. Dan Chartier, a former president of the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research. "Now you can almost stick the equipment in your pocket. It's evolved a long, long way."

For his game, Ware uses a brain wave headset made by NueroSky Inc. of San Jose. The gadget is roughly the same weight and shape as a headset that someone might use to make a phone call. Except instead of a microphone, a curved plastic arm rests lightly on a person's forehead to measure brain wave activity.

"A lot of times the most interesting products come from people with a deep personal passion for them," Huang said. "There was something about him and his story that drew me to this. I don't pick things like this just because of their commercial potential. I pick them because they are great products."