The rise in popularity of the Wii system and games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band points to an emerging trend in video games: the death of the traditional controller. Whereas games were once played primarily with the thumbs, they now are played with the entire body. A new invention takes this trend even further, enabling users to play games with their minds.

The Emotiv EPOC(TM) is a headpiece that allows video-game players to control the actions and emotions of characters through their thoughts. Rather than moving the hands, a person can just think about how they want a character to move and it will happen on screen. If a player smiles, their on-screen counterpart also will smile. The EPOC is designed to work with PCs and all game consoles – though a game must be created specifically for use with the device. To encourage integration of the headpiece, the company behind the EPOC, Emotiv Systems, has released free tools to game developers to help them incorporate the new technology.

Emotiv Systems was started by a couple of entrepreneurs, a chip designer and a neuroscientist with the goal of “introducing thought to the human-machine dialogue”. They say that while they are concentrating on applying the technology to the video game industry right now, they believe eventually the technology will be used for a wide variety of purposes – from television to market research to security. According to Emotiv, their patent-pending neural processing technology makes it possible for computers to interact directly with the human brain.

The EPOC has three categories of detection: expressive, effective and cognitive. By expressive, Emotiv claims the EPOC can read and understand facial expressions (e.g. – smile, laugh, wink, crossed eyes, shock) and then recreate them on a character onscreen. By effective, they say the game adjusts dynamically for each individual’s experience – meaning music or sound can change based on how the headset reads a person’s emotions. And, by cognitive, they refer to a person’s ability to control actions on screen just by thinking about them.

Though it won’t be available until the end of the year, interested gaming enthusiasts can reserve EPOC headsets online at Emotiv’s Web site. The device goes for $300 and comes bundled with a game that puts the headset to use. Early adapters also get access to Emortal, an online portal that allows people to access and experience content through the headset. Designed as a spatial representation of a cityscape, users can walk though the city and discover games and other applications. They can also upload their own content, such as music or photos, and experience them through the headset.

Though the EPOC technology is filled with intriguing possibilities, it also may have an unexpected downside. While many are applauding the Wii technology for transforming video games into a more physical activity, the EPOC (if successful) may have the opposite effect: people won’t even have to move a thumb to play a game.