Valve co-founder and president Gabe Newell talks about Valve’s exploration of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) for gaming and beyond, in an interview with New Zealand’s 1 News. Although Newell admits that the idea of having your brain interface directly with a computer sounds “indistinguishable from science fiction,” he says developers would be making a “silly mistake” if they ignore the area.
Newell says that Valve is currently working with OpenBCI headsets to develop open-source software with the aim of making it easier for developers to understand the signals coming from people’s brains. At its most basic, this could allow software to understand whether a player is enjoying a game, and adjust the experience accordingly. For example, games could turn up the difficulty if they sense a player is getting bored. But Newell’s more ambitious ideas involve actually writing signals to people’s brains, rather than just reading them.
“Oh, remember Bob? Remember when Bob got hacked by the Russian malware? That sucked”
Newell suggests our ability to experience existing games is limited by our physical body — or “meat peripherals” as he puts it. But interfacing directly with a player’s brain could open up a lot more possibilities. “The real world will seem flat, colorless, blurry compared to the experiences you’ll be able to create in people’s brains,” Newell says.
Valve has spoken publicly about its work on brain-computer interfaces before. Back at 2019’s Game Developers Conference, Valve’s principal experimental psychologist, Mike Ambinder gave a talk on the company’s work in the area, VentureBeat reported at the time, covering many of the same possibilities and use cases that Newell outlines in his recent interview.
Beyond their use in gaming, Newell says that BCIs could help with other areas of human life like sleep. “One of the early applications I expect we’ll see is improved sleep — sleep will become an app that you run where you say, ‘Oh, I need this much sleep, I need this much REM,’” he says.
Despite the possibilities, Newell admits that brain-computer interfaces carry their risks. He says that the idea of a BCI making someone feel pain is a “complicated topic,” and adds that the interfaces will be susceptible to viruses like other technologies, suggesting that they’ll need similar safeguards in place.
“Nobody wants to say, ‘Oh, remember Bob? Remember when Bob got hacked by the Russian malware? That sucked — is he still running naked through the forests?’” Newell quips. “People are going to have to have a lot of confidence that these are secure systems that don’t have long-term health risks.”
Regardless, it sounds like Valve doesn’t have any plans to commercialize its research just yet. Newell says that they’re making such rapid progress that any device risks being outdated once it’s gone through the slow process commercialization. “The rate at which we’re learning stuff is so fast,” Newell says.
Other high-profile companies currently exploring brain-computer interfaces include Facebook, which is working on a way to allow users to type with their brains, and Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which is attempting to develop a less-invasive way of connecting a computer to the human brain.