Nat Geo’s ‘The Brain Show’ Unleashes the Mind’s Super Powers

Channel takes show’s live VR experience on the road, around the world.

by Justin W. Sanders

It must be fun to work at National Geographic Channel, where it is a mandate to not only produce groundbreaking content but where being “at the forefront of science and exploration,” said Emanuele Madeddu, the channel’s SVP of creative and consumer marketing, “is part of the mission of the company.”

It’s a company where the act of marketing a worldwide phenomenon like the show Brain Games involves more than just the usual bag of program promotional campaign tricks. It involves designing, constructing and touring a new technology — a fully immersive virtual reality experience called The Brain Show.

National Geographic Channel’s Brain Show has, to date, toured Australia, Brazil and currently, Singapore, where it will be hitting up high schools throughout February. At each stop, participants have lined up to strap on a Neurosky EEG Headset, which in turn is connected to an Oculus Rift viewer, a Kinect camera and a real-time 3D engine. “EEG,” for those who don’t happen to be in neuroscience or have a passing interest therein, stands for “electroencephalography,” which is a method of measuring what are commonly called brain waves.

In conjunction with receiving the user’s brain waves, The Brain Show apparatus initiates a face scan, which materializes as a 3D avatar for the user, visible through the Oculus Rift.

With the kindly voice of Brain Games host Jason Silva serving as a guide, the participant can then destroy, build back up, paint, distort and otherwise manipulate their avatar simply by moving their head and concentrating and focusing in different directions. The result, as described by Italian digital creative agency Xister, which developed the technology, is “an amazing interactive experience that gives super powers to everyone’s brain. For real.”

The idea for The Brain Show “came from the need to demonstrate how powerful the brain can be, if correctly stimulated,” said Louis Mustill, the technical director who collaborated with Xister to bring the experience to life. “We’d seen virtual reality done before, but always as quite a passive experience where a user would be monitored and a piece of content would run from start to finish, but there wasn’t a lot of agency in the process. To build on this, we decided to make it more of an immersive experience, so users could engage with it like an experiment or a game.”

Completing the installation required developing tools to not only get the measured brain activity from the EEG headset into the 3D engine, but to translate it into a format with which people could be engaged. Building within a live-programming environment called VVVV, Mustill’s team “came up with a unique rendering style and world for your head to live in,” he said, “and worked through different parameters of the rendering that we could control with both concentration and other values we got from the Oculus headset, like which direction you’re looking in.”

Along the way, they designed “a generative musical score” that pipes in during the experience, “where the music is described by a set of rules and algorithms and created on the fly.”

What ensued was 18 months in the making and is “something you have to see” to fully understand, said Madeddu. “The Brain Show transcends language and cultural barriers… engaging people from all backgrounds with science and with the opportunity to explore their brains like never before.”

Originally published at brief.promaxbda.org.