Some of this fall's much-hyped video games like Halo 2, The Sims 2 and GT4 may be devastatingly brilliant, but they're all lame technological kindergarten projects compared to the serious genius of Mindball.
Mindball is a two-person table game like foosball or air hockey. The object is to score on your opponent, but instead of enthusiastically using paddles or little plastic men on sticks to manipulate the ball, the controllers are the players' brains.
Mindball is "an experience product." Players use their alpha and theta brainwaves (two of four major brainwave types) to control the rubber-coated steel ball and move it across the 4-foot-long game table. Each player wears a headband equipped with electrodes that act as biosensors to measure their brain's electrical activity as recorded from the scalp – similar to how a neurophysiologic electroencephalogram (EEG) machine is used to assess brain damage and epilepsy.
The person with the stronger alpha and theta brainwaves will be able to "push" a magnetic carriage under the table (visible to players and audience as a ball on the surface) into their opponent's goal and score a point.
What adds an unusual and exciting twist to the game is the fact that alpha and theta waves are strongest when a person is calm and relaxed, or concentrating intently. Unlike every other skill and strategy game, where winning and excitement are a natural pair, only the calm and steady-brained can triumph here. The goal is to counterintuitively not compete.
Whether you rely on Jedi mind tricks, legendary advice from Mr. Miyagi or some tasty quip from Sun Tzu, the mind needs to be emptied and the body relaxed. When was the last time you won a game without showing signs of aggression or tapping into an adrenaline rush? The Zen master wins again....
This is the next level of interactive gaming because of its accessibility (any sentient human can play), unique user interface and masterful conception. It's the type of great leap forward that Atari made 32 years ago when it first released Pong, but with a much greater potential benefit to society.
Like Pong, Mindball's play is based on a single axis of quantitative measurement (in this case, brainwaves) that varies positively or negatively in order to move a game controller.
The brain is essentially a joystick that is currently limited to moving only backwards and forwards, but this single axis will allow a quadriplegic to play basic driving games or Arkanoid with just a small increment of development work (and a lot of very patient mental exercise by prospective players).
If the inventors of Mindball – Sweden's Interactive Institute – could develop a way for the brain to simultaneously control a Y-axis, exponentially more sophisticated interfaces for games and other computer applications could be developed – perhaps using beta or delta brainwaves, the two types not now being used by Mindball. It would be like the difference between playing Asteroids with the paddle controller on an Atari 2600 and playing Donkey Kong with the joystick controller on an Atari 5200.
When asked about this, Staffan Söderlund, head of technical development for the Interactive Institute, says, "That's quite possible, but we haven't actually done anything about it yet. We have decided that we would rather have a flow of products through the company than be a dedicated (research and development) company. The product will remain as it is for the moment.
"We have developed a team-based component for Mindball that allows for groups of three people to play against each other. It relies on the weakest link in a group, meaning that everyone needs to be relaxed in order for a team to win. It's an excellent corporate team-building game."
As far as tips for winning are concerned, Söderlund says, "If you're into meditation or yoga, that certainly helps."
Warning: Mindball is on the bleeding edge of recreational leisure toys and is priced accordingly.
For $25,000, you can have the Mindball Blue or Mindball Oak models. The luxury version for executive offices (it comes with leather chairs and a walnut cabinet) is available for $41,000. And if you want to add the cool multi-player option permitting teams of three people to compete against each other, that's an extra $3,500 (all prices in Canadian dollars after being converted from Swedish kronor).
It's comparable to buying a car, but oh so much cooler.
Science World in Vancouver and the Saskatchewan Science Centre have already purchased Mindball games, but there are none in Toronto yet. Söderlund does, however, say that the Ontario Science Center has expressed interest in acquiring one.
After the science centers, "the next step will be to find other markets ... in different parts of the world," he says. When asked whether he has considered targeting Starbucks or cyber cafes, he says "we have thought of it [but] are a small company, so we have our hands full with the present market."
And what's next? "We are in the patent process for the next product," Söderlund says. "It will be a couple months more before it's on display." And is it as cool as Mindball? "Yes, definitely."