Mind-Control Toys: The Force Is with You

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Toy maker Uncle Milton has introduced Force Trainer, a game that uses NeuroSky's brainwave-controlled gaming technology

This fall, the Force can finally be with you — for a suggested retail price of $129.99. Put on a headset, focus on a small ball in a cylinder, and use your mind to make the sphere rise. It's cool, not to mention a little strange.

Stranger yet, Uncle Milton's Force Trainer wasn't the only levitational gadget at this year's American International Toy Fair, the four-day trade show that brings a gazillion manufacturers and retailers together every February in New York City. Also on display was Mattel's new Mindflex, which has players move a tiny foam ball through a mini–obstacle course with their thoughts. Or, more precisely, with their brain waves. (See the best toys from the 2008 American International Toy Fair.)

Both toys employ EEG, or electroencephalogram, technology. EEGs measure electrical activity in the brain and have been used to diagnose seizures, assess head injuries and explore sleep disorders, among other functions. In other words, the science behind these toys is legit; there's no magic trick involved. "The fact that you can use EEG, that you can modulate it, that you can control it — it's well known, it's true," says Dr. Ronald Emerson, a neurology professor at Columbia University. Upon hearing about the new toys, his colleague Dr. Catherine Schevon said, "Our fellows would go ape for this!" (Read "Learning More About Levitation.")

Each toy includes a wireless headset equipped with forehead and ear sensors that read two kinds of brain waves — alpha and beta, naturally — then relay signals to the bases of the toys, triggering fans that cause the balls to rise. Mindflex's headgear comes with earlobe clips, which significantly increase the I-look-like-a-fool factor. The game requires players to move the ball sideways as well as vertically. There's a knob on the base unit that players must turn (the old-fashioned way, with their hands) while focusing to get the ball, for example, through a tiny hoop. At the toy fair, a Mattel spokesperson joked that Mindflex requires "mind-eye coordination."

Just think of it as a drinking game, an onlooker said during the Mindflex demo at the toy fair — which, irony of ironies, does not allow any kids inside. The $79.99 game, like Uncle Milton's Force Trainer, is intended for ages 8 and up. (See the top 10 gadgets of 2008.)

The Force Trainer — which is limited to moving a ball up and down in a tube — may not be as complicated as Mindflex. But it does have Star Wars branding, which possesses a magical retail power all its own. The toy features 15 levels of training: increasingly difficult challenges involving how high to raise the ball and how long to hold it steady before changing its height. Along the way, Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi offer words of encouragement as hopefuls try to attain Jedi Master status. May your limited discretionary-spending power be with you.

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Read "The Army's Totally Serious Mind-Control Project."