A new game has you moving a ball with your mind.

The art of play.
Dec. 26 2006 3:52 PM

Bowling With Brain Waves

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

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

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.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber (@danengber) is a columnist for Slate. Send him an email at danengber@yahoo.com.

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.

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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.