What if you could step into virtual reality and control your avatar just by thinking? You tell your avatar to smile by thinking it, and it does, and all the other avatars see the smile. You think of moving forward, and your avatar acquiesces. Then, you step out of the virtual world. You have just been controlling a version of yourself, which feels real and seems to have emotions and experiences of its own, using just your brain. An odd sensation surfaces, between fear and wonder, like when you just watched the first Matrix movie. You begin to think: what if this life is just a dream, a simulation being controlled by someone else’s brain?
Dan Cook doesn’t hold back on drama when discussing his San Francisco, US-based company, EyeMynd Brainwave VR. What he and his team are working on is, to him, not just a way to enhance the virtual experience, but a path to answering a question philosophers and scientists have been stumped by for millennia: What is human consciousness?
Cook, who has a PhD in physics and has also studied cognitive neuroscience, says he’s figured out how to capture brainwaves outside the human skull and gain information from them—on how the brain controls the whole of human experience. Using this information, EyeMynd has created what Cook calls a Brain Operating System. Now, they have used the HTC Vive VR headset, added sensors and their unique technology to it and created a headset they say will let you control actions in VR just by thinking.
“For our beta version, which we will release in 2017 to VR developers, we are putting 16 brainwave sensors into an HTC Vive headset. These will let people smile and make other authentic facial expressions in VR just by thinking,” Cook explains. “Every year, we will launch a new headset with double the number of sensors from the previous. So, soon we’ll be able to control not just the face but the arms, the fingers, the legs and everything using just the brain. You won’t need a keyboard, a mouse or hand-held controllers any more.”
If this is possible, we will be able to communicate with others in VR, create things, learn, even find love. The VR Cook is talking about is not just one where we will see a beautiful landscape of Australia and feel like we have seen it. We will be sitting in a café in Australia, or a fictional place, actually thinking, all while our brains in what we call reality, are telling our avatars what to do, and even what to think. If we reach this level of immersion, we may also start understanding things about our current selves.
This is where that odd sensation grips you and takes you down a scary but exciting tunnel of possibilities. If using our brain waves, we can actually give our virtual avatars the capability to think and remember, then how are we different from them? Is there another version of us, somewhere, who is dreaming this current state that we call the real world? “In Hindu mythology, Vishnu dreams all the universes. The world we are in is Vishnu’s dream. But what if we are all sleeping Vishnus? What if this world is a dream and when we wake up, we have a higher consciousness?” Cook asks.
If we can breathe real life and consciousness into an avatar, we could, theoretically, become immortal. But what if we already are? Cook asks. If brain-wave VR is successful, we will be able to have two selves and remember what the one in VR experiences. What if this is already the case? What if consciousness is something that is eternal, and our current state is just a level, like virtual reality, several levels down from that eternal consciousness?
At this point, it is difficult to ascertain whether Cook is a genius or a madman. Indeed, there are many who are sceptical of his plans. Several doctors don’t think brain waves can be accurately studied without making incisions into the skull. Cook himself admits that the skull, being an effective semi-conductor, stops most brain waves escaping. He says what EyeMynd does is find the brain waves that do escape “like needles in a haystack” and glean tremendous amounts of information from them.
The plan is grand. Cook has been thinking about this since 1981, when he first began to fantasize about controlling his Apple computer using just his mind. Now, EyeMynd is planning to open offices in China and India and begin manufacturing headsets. They expect to announce the beta version by March. In a few years’ time, Cook expects us to be creating universities in virtual reality, learning there, and revolutionizing medicine once we have discovered how the brain really does control everything.
There are several ifs and buts in this plan, and Cook’s conviction that there are multiple levels of consciousness could be premature. Even if his technology does allow us to control actions and thoughts in the virtual space using our brains, we don’t know what that experience will feel like, or what it will help us discover. But a truly immersive virtual reality is going to ask questions about what the word “reality” even means and add new fodder to the eternal conversation about consciousness.