As video games go, it was pretty lame: shooting down rockets launched by pirate ships. And the gamer only hit 83 percent of the rockets. But his performance may go down in history.
It wasn't the gamer's score that was so amazing. It was his technique. He fired the virtual cannon shots using the hands of another person sitting in a building a mile away.
He did it without saying a word or making any visible gesture. He did it simply by thinking.
The video game was part of a cutting-edge research project conducted by Professors Rajesh Rao and Andrea Stocco at the University of Washington. It established the first brain-to-brain interface in humans. In other words, two guys' brains communicated directly with each other. No need to put the instructions into words or bother speaking to each other.
So how did the two brains communicate?
The researchers recorded brain signals from the gamer - his "fire" command - and sent the command over the Internet directly to the brain of his partner, who hit the actual trigger. (The partner couldn't see any video game screen.)
The score's looking more impressive now, isn't it?
Establishing the direct brain-to-brain interface required some sophisticated technology. The researchers picked up the gamer's "fire" command by using electroencephalography (EEG), a method that records a brain's electrical activity using external sensors placed along the scalp. A computer understood the command (no small feat) and transmitted it over the Internet to another computer.
The second computer then triggered short electromagnetic pulses - a technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) - to deliver an equivalent "fire" command to the partner's brain, making him perform the hand movement the gamer intended. (And, no, it didn't hurt.)
Although the video game experiment was a pretty basic cooperative task, direct brain-to-brain interface ultimately could revolutionize human communication, the researchers say. It eventually could free us from having to find words and symbols to communicate with each other. It could unlock knowledge buried deeply in our brains, below the level of our conscious minds.
Take the example of a master violinist. Her technique - wired into her unconscious brain from years of study and practice - becomes "second nature," something she can't put into words. But brain-to-brain interface could allow it to be transferred directly to her student in the form of neural code.
That level of communication may still be a ways off, but the researchers caution that people need to start talking now about the ethics of brain-to-brain interface. It won't be long until neuroscience catches up with ideas from the realm of science fiction.
Another cutting-edge neuroscientist, Miguel Nicolelis, whose research explores brain-machine interfaces, puts it this way: "Impossible is just the possible that someone has not put in enough effort to make it come true."
Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University, has led an effort to allow paralyzed people to walk again by using a brain-machine interface. His research team has created a robotic "exoskeleton" that a paralyzed patient wears and controls by brain activity.
In a dramatic demonstration of the technology, a 29-year-old man, Juliano Pinto, who is paralyzed in his lower trunk, made the ceremonial first kick at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Nicolelis's other research also has demonstrated that monkeys can control the arms on a virtual avatar using just their brain activity.
Who'd have thought that "monkeying around" could be at the leading edge of brain science?
For more details about these amazing research projects, read about Rao and Stocco's brain-to-brain interface research in an article published Nov. 5, 2014, in the online Public Library (PLoS) One Journal, and watch Nicolelis's TED talk on his research. The National Science Foundation also made a not-to-be-missed 5-minute documentary on Nicolelis's research.
Rao RPN, Stocco A, Bryan M, Sarma D, Youngquist TM, et al. (2014) A Direct Brain-to-Brain Interface in Humans. PLoS ONE 9(11): e111332. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111332
Nicolelis, Miguel. (2013) A Monkey That Controls a Robot With Its Thoughts? No, Really. TED talk. www.ted.com/speakers/miguel_nicolelis
National Science Foundation. World Cup exoskeleton allows paraplegic to walk again. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WO71e0XLqs
Martins, A, and Rincon, P. (12 June 2014) Paraplegic in robotic suit kicks off World Cup. BBC News. www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-27812218
In a University of Washington experiment, two gamers cooperatively played a video game through a direct brain-to-brain interface. Sophisticated technology, including electroencephalography (EEG) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), helped their brains communicate directly without words or gestures. Photo: University of Washington; Public Library of Science (PLoS) One. © 2014 Rao et al. Used under a Creative Commons license. © 2014 Rao et al. Used under a Creative Commons license.
University of Washington researcher Rajesh Rao, left, imagines firing a virtual cannon in a video game. His brain's "fire" command is picked up by electroencephalography (EEG) and sent directly to partner Andrea Stocco's brain using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Both EEG and TMS are painless, non-invasive techniques - meaning they just sit on top of the person's scalp instead of requiring something to be inserted directly into the brain - but they do require the gamers to wear some pretty funky headgear. Photo: University of Washington © 2014 Rao et al. Used under a Creative Commons license.