Students At Duke University Are Playing PONG With Their Minds

Its graphics consist of two bars, some text, and a dot set on a black background. The sound design comprises a single channel which generated little more than a variety of beeps. Gameplay is as simple as it gets - it's just virtual table tennis. Yet somehow, even in this era of million polygon-count models and billion-dollar game design, it arguably still holds its own (people are still playing it today). 

It's still got it.It's still got it.

It's PONG, and it carries with it one of the heaviest, most considerable legacies in gaming's history.

Developed way back in the early 70s by Atari, PONG was the first commercially-successful arcade game ever made. From this success, coin-op arcades were born. It was within the depths of these arcades that the games industry took shape; arcade cabinets would eventually result in advanced technology, which soon gave way to home consoles. In other words...PONG is in many ways the grandfather of gaming. 

As it turns out, that may not be the only legacy it carries. At least, not for long. A new one is quickly taking form. At Duke University, PhD student David Schwarz has added a new layer to the legendary game: brainwave control.

We're basically going from this...We're basically going from this...

Brainwave control is something I've discussed before, and it's no less exciting in this context than it was with Throw Trucks With Your Mind. Perhaps it's even more enthralling, in this case: after all, it's designed to be. Schwarz's setup was actually cobbled together for Duke University's 2013 Summer Science Sleuths Camp; a program designed to inspire students to pick up careers in the sciences.

"Our role is to make science so fun, so much fun, and so interesting so they can't not consider science," program director Chris Adamczyk told News Observer.  To that end, Schwarz first testedhis interface on his fellow students. Many of them had to be pried away from the game. this.

"The first time I played," said 23-year-old Vivek Subramian, "I played for an hour and a half without stopping." 

In other words, it's fun - extremely so - and even more addictive than the original. 

The process for setting up the control was fairly simple. First, students donned the interface: a multi-armed headpiece containing several saline-soaked and felt-padded electrodes. Next, they were walked through a number of movements which would cause the paddles to move - nodding would make the paddle go down, for example. Eventually, just thinking of the action became sufficient. Students merely stared at the screen and quite literally 'thought' their paddle around. 

Schwarz currently works in the laboratory of Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a pioneer in brainwave control technology. Projects produced by his lab include an interface which allowed a rat to control a robotic arm with its mind, and a headset which allowed a monkey to move a cursor on a computer screen and 'feel' textures on said screen. The next step, explained senior research scientist Dr. Laura Oliveira, is to help the paralyzed walk. 

It's for way more than just gaming.It's for way more than just gaming.

"Our lab is interested in making it possible for paralyzed people to recover independence," Oliveira said. Ultimately, they hope to have a paralyzed person in an exoskeleton perform the opening kickoff at the World Cup in Brazil. To put how far everything's come in perspective...they expect to have realized this goal by next year. 

Schwarz, meanwhile, is hoping to streamline his setup so that it can be used outside the lab. the mind-controlled game of PONG is important, he says, because it shows another real-world use for their research. When he graduates, he's hoping to continue using games as a teaching tool. One can only guess what he has in store then. 

Fancy changing the world again?Fancy changing the world again?

PONG has one of the weightiest legacies in gaming's history. It was the game from which contemporary gaming evolved. Perhaps now, it might well be the grandfather of mind-controlled games, as well. For now, it's safe to say that - at the very least - we've stumbled across something which is quite literally mind-blowing.