Gone are the days of video games merely being an idle pastime for the average couch potato, when all that mattered was pushing buttons for the right moves and getting to the next level. With their ability to embed in the brains of longtime gamers and change human behavior, video games have evolved to uses taking them far beyond the sofa. Today, it seems something of a misnomer to even refer to them as “video games,” as their applications have practical use in everything from art, education, and skills training, to neuroscience and banking. They even play a role in developing modern prosthetics. Things that took human intelligence to develop are now just as reliant on artificial intelligence.
“The brain evolved to see the world the way it was useful to see in the past,” says neurobiologist and artist Beau Lotto in his TED Talk. The brain is also easily duped as propagandists, advertisers, and video game developers know. Now an unlikely amalgam of neuroscientists, computer geeks, video gamers, and engineers is stretching the limits of our imagination. Music can be made from color. You can teach your ears to “see.” Prosthetic limbs can feel real. When we play first person video games it becomes easy to take on the identity of the avatar, our game character.
It is this brain trickery that will soon allow us to use video to project ourselves as an avatar to meet in a faraway place. “In gaming you project yourself into the character. First person perspective creates games where your brain believes it is in the game,” says Olaf Blanke, assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Brain-Mind Institute of Lausanne, Switzerland. “The brain puts itself into the avatar’s body. The right temporoparietal part of your brain controls. You don’t know where the subject is localized. And so the brain can deceive itself, it can feel or experience that which isn’t real, essential for video gaming and neuroprosthetics.” It is a small step from there to immerse yourself into the world of the game entirely, a world where the game codes for the world around you.
Blanke is involved in cognitive neuroprosthetics, which employ the brain’s way of tricking itself to incarnate or animate artificial limbs and avatars or robots. Many amputees report still feeling sensations as though they still have the use of their lost arms and legs. In instances of spinal damage, such a massive disconnect occurs — you have a body but don’t feel it. Blanke proposes to give back feeling in the body and remove pain: “Cognitive neuroprosthetics projects your self-awareness to limbs that are not yours. Prosthetic hands do not feel yet, but cognitive neuroprosthetics is moving towards changing that.” Already, the technology has advanced considerably thanks to virtual reality. Marc Fucarile, who lost a leg in the Boston Marathon bombings, has said that his new prosthetic works so well that he considered having his other leg amputated.
It is through “sensory substitution,” using sound instead of sight, that Lotto and his team create prosthetics for the visually impaired, to make the world navigable like never before. They are able to embed a virtual map in the user’s brain that expands based on the world around them. Colors can even be made from sounds using neuro-based technology, coding colors with musical notes.
One of the top 10 world-changing innovations in 2014 according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the “neuromorphic chip” — wired much more like a human brain than a computer chip, and guaranteed to further blur the line between machines and biological systems, as they scan and process images much like we do. Qualcomm’s new robots, equipped with these chips, process sensory data using cues of sight and sound from their camera lenses and audio feeds, and respond in ways that are not explicitly programmed. Perhaps one day, the chips could anticipate user needs.
But the innovation that excited Facebook so much, that the company bought it for $2 billion in March 2014, was the Oculus Rift, which gives gamers an atmospheric experience of living within a manufactured world. Palmer Luckey, who has no formal engineering education, built the prototype when he was 16. While video games are the target market for the Rift, the technology has implications for architecture design, emergency-response training, and even therapy for phobias.