Bowling With Brain Waves

Mindball, the new game where you move a ball with your mind.

To win a game of Mindball, you have to use your head. Two players sit across from one another at a long table; between them is a little gray ball. Each tries to push the ball toward his opponent, but they’re not allowed to use their hands. Instead, they have to coax it along using only the electrical activity of their brains.

Sound like fun? It’s amazing to watch. I wasn’t the only one impressed by Regis and Kelly’s on-air game of Mindball in early November. Despite its $20,000 price tag, the quirky console has made its way into this year’s holiday gift-gadget media blitz. Wired has been pushing Mindball ever since it appeared in the magazine’s NextFest two years ago, and they have a system on display (through New Year’s Eve) at the Wired store in New York City. Last week I headed over to the store for a closer look.

The game is supposed to measure each player’s brain activity with a band of electrodes worn above the eyes. These pick up the faint electrical signals that emanate from inside our heads. Mindball’s designers at the Interactive Institute in Sweden configured their system to register only a few of these signals—the low-frequency components known as alpha and theta waves. Alpha and theta, they tell us, are generated when the brain is “calm and relaxed.” To win a game of Mindball, then, you have to out-calm your opponent. (For a bit more background on this, click here.)

Once the two players hunker down to get their alpha and theta waves going, graphs on a video screen start tracking their mental activity. Then, all of a sudden, the ball starts to inch back and forth across the table. Of course this isn’t real telekinesis—there’s a concealed, sliding magnet that pulls it along. But the magnet gets its cues from the headband electrodes, giving the illusion of a ball that’s pushed by invisible lines of mental force.

Before heading down to the Wired store, I read up on how to maximize my alpha and theta waves. It turns out the best approach is to avoid thinking too hard about anything in particular—the surest way to bottom out your alpha waves is to start doing math problems in your head. On the other hand, you can get an alpha boost just by closing your eyes. Sleep deprivation is another way to pump up alpha and theta—the longer you stay awake, the better. I also had an ace in the hole: Studies have shown that cocaine can give you a burst of both alpha and theta activity. I loved the idea of juicing for a Mindball tournament. While everyone else struggled to stay relaxed with yoga breathing, I’d be high as a kite and beating their asses.

I never had to resort to doping. At the store, I sat down at the machine, strapped on the headband, and closed my eyes. A few seconds later someone tapped me on the shoulder. “It’s over,” he said, “you won.” The next few matches were just as easy. I didn’t want to hog the table, so I decided to try mental arithmetic in an effort to diminish my alpha waves and lose as quickly as possible. But I won again; one spectator even told me he’d never seen alpha and theta like mine.

This was getting suspicious. I took off my headband in the middle of one match and still managed to eke out a victory. I convinced my opponent to take off her headband, too. We sat across from each other with our brain-sensing electrodes laid out on the table and watched the ball dance to and fro. It was our closest match yet; after a minute or so, the ball finally edged across her goal line.

Mindball was clearly broken. When I pulled a Wired store employee aside to complain, he shrugged. “It’s not a very good product,” he said, over the noise of the in-store DJ. He explained that the game works better when there’s less going on in the store and when someone’s around to make sure everything’s plugged in properly. “I wouldn’t buy one,” he concluded.

Faulty connections and loud music might not have been the only things interfering with the Mindball signal. To pick up human brain-wave activity, you need a very sensitive (and very expensive) machine. Slight changes in the positioning of the electrodes can make a big difference—if an electrode slips even a fraction of an inch during recording, the machine could register a false spike. Something as minimal as a fluttering eyelid can produce a signal.

Electrodes are placed with extreme care in clinical settings, where brain waves are recorded to diagnose epilepsy and sleep disorders. In most cases, a trained technician will apply them securely to the head using a conductive gel to ensure a clean connection. Even normal skin or hair oil can throw off the signal.

Playing Mindball

The Mindball headband comes with no such controls. The location of the electrodes and the quality of the connection depends on how you happen to put it on. (Women who slide it over bangs, for example, will have a layer of hair between the metal and their skin.) The machine doesn’t even have a way of testing the contacts, though it would be easy enough to build in such a monitor.

Even if the connections were stable, there might be other problems. Not everyone has the same baseline alpha and theta activity. Some people could have naturally stronger signals, whether they’re Zen monks or nervous Nellies. And there’s no way to know what the machine is actually recording, since the “data” on the video display are more impressionistic than informative. The graphs are flipped, for one thing—with higher alpha and theta activity represented as lower values. There’s also a conspicuous absence of numbers or units of measurement.

When I asked a Mindball marketing rep about these issues, I was told that it’s “just a game.” The manufacturers won’t give out any information about the quality of the signals or the raw data that are produced. It’s an entertainment product, after all, so why can’t I just relax and enjoy it?

The Swedes who created the prototype for Mindball—called Brainball—aren’t any more helpful. “The emptiness of Brainball makes it open to interpretation and reflection on what it is and how to use it,” writes one of its inventors in an impenetrable essay that cites both Jacques Derrida and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

But institutions aren’t laying out $20,000 for conceptual art. Seven North American science museums have already purchased Mindball systems, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point bought one to train cadets on “optimal attentional focus for peak performance.” Not even the Army could wrest any specific technical information from the manufacturers. If we want to train our troops with Mindball, we’re just going to have to trust that it works.

The crowd in the Wired store didn’t seem too concerned with these technical issues. The system’s flaws weren’t subtle—it was plain to see, for example, that the player who happened to be sitting on the left won nine out of every 10 games. But players on the right still closed their eyes and gripped the sides of the table, trying in vain to squeeze out enough brain waves for a victory. Even a trained meditator with fingers flexed in Mudra poses couldn’t catch a break; he got his butt kicked over and over by a distractible 6-year-old.

It’s easy to believe in Mindball because it’s a two-person game. Since there’s always someone else hooked into the system, it’s impossible to connect what’s going on inside your head with what happens to the ball. Sure, I won a match while doing mental arithmetic—but my opponent might have been doing calculus. In that sense, the game is like a high-tech version of Ouija: When everyone puts their hands on the board, it starts to feel like magic.

Mindball isn’t magic, though, and it should work. You really can use surface electrodes to measure alpha and theta waves, and they really do reflect a certain state of mind. There’s no reason why we can’t go head-to-head in relaxation, so long as the game is set up in the right environment, with a technician to monitor the electrodes and calibrate the machine.

Will you ever find a working Mindball? The machine has been marketed for trade shows, product expos, and mall lobbies—exactly the sorts of chaotic places where it’s least likely to function. It’s a real shame, too. If Mindball were running smoothly, I’m sure it would be a blast.