Virtual Reality headsets can be seen as the epitome of human-technology interaction, with the human senses being almost completely taken over by the experience. Since becoming readily available to the consumer market, VR headsets have come on leaps and bounds in a short space of time. While others may argue, I personally believe the start of the VR age was in 2016 – a year that saw the HTC Vive, Playstation VR, and Oculus Rift all being commercially released. Since then there have been a huge increase in the amount of headset varieties available, and games to go with them. However, where can VR go next? Are we now at a point where the only improvements to be made are to the components already in VR? Or is there still room for innovation and new features?

Well the answer to that last question is most certainly yes! Companies and technology groups are starting to integrate EEG (Electroencephalogram) into VR headsets. But what is EEG and why do I want it? Well, EEG uses sensors that are in contact with the skin on a person’s head to measure the electrical activity of the brain; sometimes referred to as “Brain Waves”. These brain waves can be tracked to certain parts of the brain that are in charge of different things, such as attention, emotion, or memory. So, that is the “What?” but where is the “Why?” – well you’ll have to keep reading to find out.

How are companies doing this?

There are two different ways that companies, such as MyndPlay and Looxid, are integrating EEG and VR. One way is having a standalone, portable EEG that you can wear alongside a VR headset. The other way is to have an attachable EEG that goes straight onto the VR headsets. Both of these methods use dry sensors, that make contact to the forehead region and collect readings from the frontal lobe, and sometimes the prefrontal cortex. These sensors require little to no extra setup, a complete opposite to a full EEG that requires enough conductive gel to make getting gunged on Tiswas look like a cake walk. Not to mention the cap of sensors that makes it feel like you are getting hooked up to the Matrix. While these may be slight exaggerations, the point still stands – VR EEG is barely noticeable when fully integrated.

What is it for?

With various brain waves being collected and monitored by the EEG, attention and relaxation are the most common measurements right now. With VR apps that are solely designed for meditation, being able to measure if someone is doing so effectively would be a natural application. But there is much more than just a score at the end of a meditative session. When fully integrated into VR apps, the EEG can sense if you are not quite in a zen like state and change what is happening in the app – whether making the waves sound louder, or give you a visual prompt. There have also been attempts to gamify this process, by giving meditators a coloured ball/ ring that responds to the EEG, meaning user can improve their relaxation and attention without even realising.

OK, so meditation is great, but what else? Well EEG and VR is being applied to both the healthcare sectors and consumer insight sector. Healthcare applications is a natural progression because of biofeedback and its success with treating things such as stress or anxiety. VR has already been used to help treat those with a fear of public speaking, but with EEG integrated, it can be taken a step further by giving additional feedback on improvements. If healthcare applications are a natural progression, consumer insight is perhaps a slight stretch. The idea being that during consumer research, participants are shown a new product through VR and how they feel about certain parts can be measured. This idea is being portrayed as almost a step into customer subconscious – brilliant, if only that were the case. While I am far from being an expert in EEG or the brain, my understanding is that the subconscious parts of the brain are not in the frontal lobe (where VR EEG sensor sit). Regardless of this, could it be that using VR and EEG for consumer insight is akin to killing a fly with a cannon? There has been a long history of high quality consumer research done through interviews and focus groups, so perhaps there is little need to “improve” it with measuring brain waves.

We have already mentioned gamification of other tasks, so here we come to another natural use for EEG in VR – gaming. Horror game developers are always looking at new ways to scare the soul out of its players. Imagine if rather than guessing when people will get most scared, to actually being able to see it through EEG data. Or even better, changing when in-game events happen based on a player’s attention being objectively low. Stepping away from horror games, EEG could be used to help players who appear to be stuck at a certain point because they weren’t focussing when they picked up a key item. The possibilities are seemingly endless because of the real-time feedback that could be programmed into video games.

Some of the pros and cons

While so far it has (mostly) been a gleaming review of EEG integration with VR, there are some downsides. When comparing these EEG types to a full EEG machine, it is about compromise. A full form of EEG will give a lot more data and insight than a VR EEG; but isn’t practical when used with anything else. A full EEG will be better for research because of this increase in data; but if you don’t have £10,000+ to spend on one, then VR EEG is the way forward. Overall it is reasonable to say that there are downsides to both, but the VR EEG positives far outweigh the negatives. Additionally, this is just the beginning of EEG integration into VR. As the technology is integrated and taken up by more and more sectors, then the technology itself will improve – leading to even more exciting prospects.

What are these prospects you ask?

So far we have VR and EEG being used to aid meditation, ease stress and relieve anxiety – but that isn’t quite the futuristic applications that come to mind when “Brain Waves” are mentioned. However, controlling technology with our thoughts is. Video games are already using this concept to control in-game mechanics, but what if this concept was translated to the real world? With integration of VR and EEG, flying drones have already been controlled through a person’s thoughts; and it is being dubbed to take over from traditional mouse and keyboard in the future. My personal view is that it would be better to use the EEG alongside traditional input methods to increase efficiency, however any utilisation of thought controlled technology would be amazing! While technology might currently be “primitive” when it comes to accurate and reliable control while using EEG, this will only improve over the next 20 years or so. However, once it is more refined, it could be the biggest boost to efficiency in the workplace since dual monitors or macros.