Computing: Mind control

Control the CN Tower's lights with your mind? Wait till the marketers find out.

Imagine controlling the lights at Toronto’s CN Tower from Vancouver with your mind. It sounds like a futuristic dream, but an installation at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics allows visitors to do just that. Created by Toronto-based tech startup InteraXon, the demonstration also allows visitors to use their brainwaves to control lighting displays at the Parliament Buildings and Niagara Falls, both thousands of kilometres away.

To participate in the Bright Lights demonstration at Ontario’s Olympic pavilion, visitors simply don a headset with an external probe that measures baseline brain activity. By alternately concentrating and relaxing their focus, they can switch between creating alpha and beta brainwaves, which are measured and used to adjust the lights at the three attractions.

The demonstration made a big splash in the press, but it’s really just another step on a well-travelled journey toward thought-controlled computing that began in 1996. That was the year that German scientist Niels Birbaumer successfully trained a patient with Lou Gehrig’s disease to move a computer cursor by controlling the frequency of his brainwaves.

Trevor Coleman, who co-founded InteraXon in 2007, says his demonstration shows how that technology can be used in new ways. As InteraXon did, marketers could harness brainwaves in experiential marketing installations. Companies could ask visitors to concentrate on their products or ads while wearing the headset, for instance, and while they are controlling lighting displays, the subject’s level of attention could be measured. “With our system, you know they’re relaxing, you know they’re concentrating,” Coleman says.