At GDC 2019 later this month, Valve’s Principal Experimental Psychologist, Mike Ambinder will present the latest research pertaining to brain-computer interfaces—using signals from the brain as computer input. Ambinder says that BCI is still “speculative technology,” but could play an important role in the way players interact with the games of the future.

As time moves forward, the means by which users interact with computers have becoming increasingly natural. First was the punch card, then the command line, the mouse… and now we’ve got touchscreens, voice assistants, and VR/AR headsets which read the precise position of our head and hands for natural interactions with the virtual world.

More natural computer interfaces make it easier for us to communicate our intent to a computer, making computers more accessible and useful with less time spent learning the abstract input systems.

Perhaps the final frontier of computer input is the brain-computer interface (BCI). Like the virtual reality system envisioned in The Matrix (1999), the ultimate form of BCI would be some sort of direct neural input/output interface where the brain can directly ‘talk’ to a computer and the computer can directly ‘talk’ back, with no abstract I/O needed.

While we’re far, far away from anything like direct brain I/O, there has been some headway made in recent years at least on the input side—’brain reading’, if you will. And while early, there’s exciting potential for the technology to transform the way we interact with computers, and how computers interact (and react) to us.

At GDC 2019 later this month in San Francisco, Valve’s Principal Experimental Psychologist, Mike Ambinder, will present an overview of recent BCI research with an eye toward its applicability to gaming. The session, titled Brain-Computer Interfaces: One Possible Future for How We Play, will take place on Friday, March 22nd. The official description reads:

While a speculative technology at the present time, advances in Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) research are beginning to shed light on how players may interact with games in the future. While current interaction patterns are restricted to interpretations of mouse, keyboard, gamepad, and gestural controls, future generations of interfaces may include the ability to interpret neurological signals in ways that promise quicker and more sensitive actions, much wider arrays of possible inputs, real-time adaptation of game state to a player’s internal state, and qualitatively different kinds of gameplay experiences. This talk covers both the near-term and long-term outlook of BCI research for the game industry but with an emphasis on how technologies stemming from this research can benefit developers in the present day.

Ambinder holds a B.A. in Computer Science and Psychology from Yale, and a PhD in Psychology from the University of Illinois; according to his LinkedIn profile, he’s been working at Valve for nearly 11 years.

The session details say that the presentation’s goal is to equip developers with an “understanding of the pros and cons of various lines of BCI research as well as an appreciation of the potential ways this work could change the way players interact with games in the future.”

Facebook is Researching Brain-Computer Interfaces, "Just the Kind of Interface AR Needs"

While the description of the upcoming GDC presentation doesn’t specifically mention AR/VR, the implications of combining BCI and AR/VR are clear: by better understanding the user, the virtual world can be made even more immersive. Like eye-tracking technology, BCI signals could be used, to some extent, to read the state and intent of the user, and use that information as useful input for an application or game. Considering Valve’s work in the VR space, we’d be surprised if Ambinder doesn’t touch on the intersection of VR and BCI during the presentation.

Road to VR will be at GDC later this month to bring you the most important news. Showing something awesome in AR or VR? Get in touch!

Newsletter graphic

This article may contain affiliate links. If you click an affiliate link and buy a product we may receive a small commission which helps support the publication. More information.

Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • Jordan_c

    I wonder what techniques and technologies they are using in their experiments. I’m personally partial to NIRS in mine.

  • Diego Lopez

    If that works on coma patients, should be called Half Alive

    • Alexandra

      Online work opportunities are increasingly becoming a emerging trend all over the over world these days. A newly released study reveals even more than 75% of people are doing work in online jobs at their home with no problems. Every person hopes to spend time with his/her relatives by getting out for any lovely place in the world. So online income enables you to complete the work at any time you want and enjoy your life. Still selecting the proper strategy furthermore building a proper target is our milestone toward financial success. Already the majority of people are being paid such a great pay check of $27000 per week by applying recommended and outstanding ways of generating income online. You will start to earn from the first day as soon as you see our web site. >>>>>

      • Alden Bluetenberger

        fuck you lmao

  • Electric Lunatic

    Kaboom, baby. Finally! But I think we’re gonna need some really hard training before using such devices properly. Like, you know, make your brain show the system the exact pictures which can be interpreted as commands.

  • Ben Smith

    Graphene is the missing link for complete non-invasive BCI technology to integrate with VR/AR:

    BCI Graphene

    • James Luo

      No too sure yet, Graphene isn’t exactly stable as of now.

  • Gaben has said that he is very interested in BCI. Can’t wait to see what they are working on

    • Proof XR Lab

      Hey Tony, hope you are well!

      Elon Musk is also involved with BCI with his Neuralink project. www neuralink com

      Expect to see BCI for medical solutions (spinal injury, dementia) years before mass consumer adoption for productivity and entertainment.

  • Mateusz Pawluczuk

    Not entirely speculative. MIT team developed “Alter Ego”. Regina Dugan during F8 showcased how convolutional networks can make guesses from what to us appears to be monosylabic noise. Advanced optogenetics allow input/output control down to every single neuron with light etc.

    Voices of VR ep. 582 with Rameez where they discuss VR/BCI is pretty great.

  • Michael Slesinski

    1 why does valve have a psychologist?
    2 is nobody else bothered by the fact that valve has made SO much money off OTHER PEOPLES games that they can afford this sort of research?
    3 do we REALLY want a company that makes millions a year not only off other peoples games but by selling virtual “trading cards, hats, and other bullshit” on their market place to have direct access to our fucking brains?!

    • G-man

      its an input device. do the manufacturers of your mouse have control over your hand?

      • Michael Slesinski

        thats a completely different interface. whats more the manufacturer of my mouse has never once tried to squeeze another few dollars out of me for some trivial bullshit after purchase.

        • G-man

          it is different yes. but this wont controler your brain just like a mouse wont controll your hand.

          dont knwo what you are even trying to say about squezing money out of you. ..

          • Michael Slesinski

            dont try to make witty comments and then feign ignorance.. stand by your (idiotic) statement.

            everyone knows valve loves microtransactions (even if mother fuckers never call them on it..). they sell cards, hats, loot box keys, skins, and gear on their market (“go after one where they are all completely optional cosmetics with a complete open resale market”)! thats without the data they harvest from users.. and what better way to harvest data than directly from the brain?

            dont try some straw man bullshit either, EA doesnt make mice or controllers i can only think of a couple devices ever that have been made specifically for a game. from what youve said its pretty clear you have no fucking clue what you are even talking about.

          • ell

            gotta be honest, objectively, you both sound like you don’t understand what your even arguing about.

            on one hand, yes, valve is likely to exploit this technology, along with anything else that might obtain it

            on the other hand, it is idiotic to assume no laws will be passed to curtail any misuse or exploitation of such tech.

            To think otherwise is going into tin foil hat territory, and you might as well start ranting about how we should only drink bottled stream water because the fluoride in the main waterways is liable to chemically lobotomize us.

          • Michael Slesinski

            valve operates in many countries.. so just because sweden (or whatever country it is) doesnt allow people to buy items on their market doesnt mean the rest of the world will allow it.

            its really you who have no clue. laws dont keep pace with technology or people wouldnt STILL be engaging in piracy.

          • G-man

            You’re hilarious. Say strawman a few more times.

        • G-man

          Lol, all youre comments are you being an obnoxious prick. Bye.

    • James Luo

      Why do you care? The fact that you are using the internet means you have no privacy because every action you do is monitored. If you are so worried about personal data being collected this way, might as well stop using your computer and any communication device. On top of that, the government can see exactly what you are doing in your house with the satellite if they hope to do it.

      • Michael Slesinski

        what paranoid schizophrenic nonsense are you yammering about? i can walk away from my computer and go commit a crime at random RIGHT NOW and it wont be “monitored”. simply using the internet does NOT forfeit all privacy at all. just like owning a television doesnt automatically make you the subject of advertising. they also cant see through solid objects with satellites.. theres ways to use a cell phone like sonar, but thats not seeing through houses. you millennial fuckwits need to learn what is real and what is hollywood bullshit.

        • MosBen

          A brain machine interface does not necessarily mean that they have access to all of your thoughts, memories, etc.

          • Michael Slesinski

            yea.. and using something like lets say facebook doesnt mean they have access to your browsing history.. except when it does. anyone who trusts corporations like valve is a fucking retard whos thoughts dont matter anyways. but GIVING them access to your brain in the first place is the issue. right now yea theyll be moving a cursor (because some of these nerds are just THAT lazy) but in the future they may very well be capturing your every thought, who the fuck would risk that?

          • MosBen

            That’s what’s known as the slippery slope fallacy. Certainly, privacy is something that everyone should be concerned about, and as this sort of technology is developed it’s something that we should have regulators and watchdog groups watching for, but it’s a logical fallacy to simply assume that the worst possible result will be the actual result.

          • Michael Slesinski

            as far as im concerned its the only possible result. then again theres some retards out there that thought steam pc’s would be great too. reality kills thousands of optimists every day.

          • MosBen

            So, your inability to think of any possible alternate scenario is an argument from ignorance, another logical fallacy. There are many outcomes of this technology that aren’t a dystopian hellscape of companies reading our minds. It’s not that these rosier alternatives will just happen on their own; people will need to be involved in order to fight for a regulatory system that will protect consumers, but it’s certainly a possibility.

          • Michael Slesinski

            ITS VALVE! its not ignorance, its a fucking TRACK RECORD.

          • MosBen

            Like I said, a brain machine interface is certainly a technology where we should have privacy concerns, but it doesn’t make logical fallacies any more valid.

          • Michael Slesinski

            you must get ripped off ALOT, because apparently you consider learning from your mistakes a “logical fallacy”.

          • MosBen

            And there we have the ad hominem fallacy. Your argument isn’t strengthened by asserting that I personally must be fooled often.

          • Michael Slesinski

            that WASNT any thing to do with an “argument”, it was merely speculation given information you provided. just like if you had said “i get slapped in the face everywhere i go” it would only be logical to assume you run your mouth too much.

          • MosBen

            I mean, an ad hominem never really is anything to do with an argument, just a poor substitute for one. But by all means, keep making my point.

          • Michael Slesinski

            there is no argument.. theres just you denying history, and me not giving a fuck what somebody incapable of learning thinks.

          • MosBen

            You’ve certainly proven that you don’t have an argument to rely on.

          • Michael Slesinski

            ..and youve certainly proven you are the kind of twat that just isnt worth tolerating.

          • MosBen

            Another ad hominem and a slur. You’re a real nice person with great communication skills!

          • goldbrood

            MosBen if you haven’t had the chance I highly suggest checking out Michael Slesinski’s profile
            this dude just cannot keep it to himself, easily half of his comments are just him impotently starting arguments where he comes off like a condescending ass without bringing up any kind of salient points
            it’s funny but also a little sad

    • WyrdestGeek

      Valve is one of the Least Evil of all of the corporations that exist. They’re also small-ish.

      All of these things you’re angry about are true of EVERY successful company *on the planet*.

      It’s weird that you seem focused on *just* the one.

      • Michael Slesinski

        youre wrong about valve. they make millions doing fuck all! they simply take a 33% cut of every game they sell.. even when they have NOTHING to do with its production. even when the games have their own publishers. even when the games are cracked because their drm is only slightly better than shrinkwrap for protection.

        they use child labor to moderate their forums, they nickle and dime people for idiotic emotes, themes, and “badges”, and they engage in censorship (while selling porn).

        who is more evil? because ea does everything they do EXCEPT child labor, bullshit market place items, drm that is shit, selling porn, and taking a 33% cut but they are apparently satan himself.

        nobody said facebook is one of the good guys (and nobody said a fucking thing about them so dont try changing the target), but only complete drool soaked stammering retards see valve as anything BUT the vile scumbags that they are. they made enough $ off OTHER PEOPLES games to attempt to get into the desktop computer game, going so far as to have their own o/s!

        i guess you casual “gamer” fucktards dont care as long as you can pick up the occasional indie filth for 90% off, but as somebody has seen the rise and fall of this industry TWICE now i see the damage that valve does by putting any burning bag of dog shit with a 100$ bill stapled to it up for sale. they 100% dont give a fuck about anything BUT the money, and that includes you.

        • WyrdestGeek

          I feel like you’ve got a lot of anger issues you might want to work on.

          You haven’t said anything likely to substantially change my opinion of the company– I already don’t trust any company to be “good” ever.

          “they 100% dont give a fuck about anything BUT the money, and that includes you.”

          A ) That’s true of many, most, or all companies depending on how cynically you want to look at it
          B ) So if a developer at Valve says they care about project x, y, or z, I guess they’re just lying? #whatever
          C ) The manner of your presentation makes you look bad. That, in turn, makes it so the only people that will listen to you are the ones that already agree with you.

          But if you want Valve to come to an end, you needn’t fear overly much.

          The full effects of global warming will kick in, in anywhere from the next 20 – 200 years and when that happens, the societal collapse that follows will destroy most or all of the existing systems humans have built.

          That will include that one, specific smallish company you’ve chosen to hate named “Valve”.

          That’ll show ‘am.

          Furry cows moo and decompress.

          • Michael Slesinski

            uh-huh. thats because i treat stupid twats like stupid twats. your position on the matter indicated immediately that you were another millennial pansy who never had any sense slapped into them, thus i dont have any reason what-so-ever to respect you and neither does anyone else. but you go act like youre clever on reddit where you are protected you fucking clown. nobody cares about the opinions of simpletons.

          • WyrdestGeek

            “nobody cares about the opinions of simpletons.”

            Indeed. Yet– here you (still). Are.

            I mean I *know* why I’m still responding to you. It’s because you’re so absolute, it’s marginally entertaining. (Marginally)

            But, if *I’m* the simpleton then it doesn’t make you look so bright, you continually responding.

            You said no one cares about my opinions, yet you felt a need to respond.

            Unless your name is “nobody”, you contradict yourself.

          • goldbrood

            if you haven’t had the chance I highly suggest checking out Michael Slesinski’s profile
            this dude just cannot keep it to himself, easily half of his comments are just him impotently starting arguments where he comes off like a condescending ass without bringing up any kind of salient points
            it’s funny but also a little sad

            I think he thinks he can win arguments by calling people millenials or telling them that they don’t know how to read it’s amazing

  • homey kenobi

    I writ a bit about this technology in my thread over at oculus. basically its possible if you have a ar system that mirrors what you see, you can read move in the link;

  • bud01

    Its possible for one mind to project a highly detailed visual image from one mind to another mind (minds eye), the question is how do you replicate that through technology, which wave length, which encoding mech is it,

    I have experienced this first hand so I know it is possible.

  • Baldrickk

    I played a (simple) game using BCI at Uni – a virtual scalextric race. You were meant to think of the car accelerating to make it move, and slowing to make it stop (you needed to slow for some corners).

    During calibration, I found it responded much better to my thinking of “Yellow” than anything else, and that just not thinking of that colour would slow it down.

    Impressive, but yeah, a long way to go.

    (yes. I won the race.)

  • Blufor

    Pretty fascinating when it gets done. Valve has come along way since Halflife 1.

  • WyrdestGeek

    Uuuhhhhhh………………. Sure Brain Computer Interface is kinda like the holy grail of computing. But I don’t really see as that we’re terribly near it atm. (I’m not counting the thing where you’re trained to move a mouse pointer by controlling your brain waves.)

    • chedca

      inb4 gdc demo

  • Sion12

    Using brain as input is great, certainly the end game of VR, but i wonder if its possible to do the opposite and transfer the image directly to brain and bypassing the eye. then we world really be transferred to another world

    • kontis

      No need to bypass the eyes. They have good bandwidth and HMD technology is already decent. And no matter how perfect vision is it will NOT transfer you anywhere. You need other senses for that. Using BCI for haptics would be a million times more significant breakthrough.