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MIT Gives Us Superpowers (Virtually)

A new mind-reading VR experience by MIT will make it feel like you have X-ray vision and can wield fireballs.

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We all dream of having the power to fly, to levitate objects, or to see through clothes walls. Now, a new project called PsychicVR, by MIT’s Fluid Interfaces Group, makes it possible, if you’re willing to settle for wielding these powers in cyberspace.

Their system combines an Oculus Rift headset with a Leap Motion controller, so that the user can both look around in 360 degrees and see their own hands. But on top of this relatively common VR hack, the MIT team added a Muse headband, which reads electrical impulses from your brain. As a result, when you think harder, you can pull off superheroic feats across a series of scenes—seeing through walls like Superman, or igniting fire in your hand like the Human Torch.

"When the user is focused, they are able to make changes in the 3-D environment and control their powers," the abstract explains. "Our system increases mindfulness and helps achieve higher levels of concentration while entertaining the user."

Having played a few of these EEG games over the years myself, I can say that the argument for some epiphany of "mindfulness" is, at least, half bogus. When I originally tried the Emotiv Epoc in the company’s San Francisco office almost a decade ago, I lifted a boulder that was rendered on a TV screen with nothing but my mind. But I didn’t walk away with some sudden ability to power-focus on my taxes. (Though, in another demo I tried years later, called Brain Ball, in which I was forced to relax my mind to move a ball across a table, I did find it promising as a feedback mechanism to meditative thought.)

However, MIT’s step of mixing all of these very intimate modes of interface—VR, motion tracking, and mind reading—seems like it could bring us to a new breakthrough in immersive experiences. Lifting a boulder with your mind is sort of silly when the phenomenon plays out on a TV screen. But experiencing a world where your entire perception—from the look of your body to the sound of the environment—could change based upon your mental attitude? Sounds pretty real to me.

All Images: via MIT’s Fluid Interfaces Group

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