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'Lazybrains': A real mental workout

Photonics Spectra
Oct 2008
Laura Marshall,

PHILADELPHIA – Parents who worry about video games turning their kids into mindless couch potatoes should consider Lazybrains, a game developed at Drexel University that is controlled by brain power.

Jordan Santell, who graduated from Drexel’s digital media program in June, assembled his Lazybrains team in January, when it was time to start senior projects. He knew they couldn’t make just any old game – “It had to have some kind of a twist” – so they looked around at new gaming trends, from Nintendo’s Wii to multitouch screens.


Lazybrains’ main character, “Morby,” is a couch-potato kid, preferring television and junk food to homework. Courtesy of Voxel 6.

“They wanted to investigate novel input devices for video games,” said Paul Diefenbach, assistant professor of digital media at Drexel and co-director of the school’s RePlay gaming lab. “And we’d been talking with the biomedical engineering department about finding a way to bridge what they do with what we do.” So Diefenbach, the group’s adviser, set up a meeting with the biomedicine experts.

That’s where they met Hasan Ayaz, a doctoral candidate whose research involves a functional near-IR device designed for use as a computer-brain interface.


The functional near-IR imaging headband has four LEDs and 10 sensors. Courtesy of Voxel 6.

It sounds like science fiction, and it looks like it, too: The player wears a futuristic-looking headband that employs functional near-IR imaging to measure the blood flow in the frontal cortex. The headband, Ayaz said, beams infrared light of three different wavelengths into the wearer’s forehead; the more the wearer concentrates, the more oxygenated blood moves into the forehead. Sensors measure the diffracted light and establish how oxygenated the blood is and, therefore, how intensely the wearer is concentrating. When the concentration level is high enough, the player advances.

The player must lift the manhole cover by raising the brain on the meter, bottom right, using only his or her powers of concentration. Courtesy of Voxel 6.

But if the game’s main character must move a manhole cover, the player does not have to concentrate on moving manhole covers, Santell said. The idea is to get blood flowing in the brain; as long as that happens, “they can think about a math problem and get a door to open or something,” he said.

Which means parents who worry about their kids becoming mindless couch potatoes could be half right.

“I think the idea of a couch potato is the kid that’s just having no interaction with their TV,” said Aaron Bohenick, another recent digital media graduate. He was responsible for creating the game’s 3-D style. “Our game counteracts that – it forces you to be mentally active.”

So Lazybrains kids might end up glued to their couches, but at least they won’t be mindless.

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