"I thought, 'what's the hardest thing I could possibly do?'" For streamer PerriKaryal, who made headlines last month for her attempts to play Elden Ring using the power of her mind, there was a significant jump between the Minecraft world where she first considered it, and the boss arenas of The Lands Between where it started to become a reality. When we talked after clips of her Twitch stream went viral, however, it was the community around FromSoftware's games and its amazing precedent of finding new ways to play that drove her there. Now, she's at the forefront of that precedent, but is still pushing the boundaries of what her tech can do.
Perri's background is in psychology - a subject in which she holds a Master's Degree, and which offered her her first opportunity to experiment with this hardware. The version she uses, however, is a £1,000 consumer model purchased with profits from her streams.
Perri's hands-free take on Elden Ring requires the use of an Electroencephalogram (EEG for short). The device, which is placed on the user's head, uses a number of electrodes to "pick up different changes in electrical activity that come out from your brain." That process can be sketchy. "EEG isn't very good at placing where signals are coming from, [but it's] really good at figuring out when they're happening." Traditionally, the technology is used to diagnose various brain disorders, like epilepsy, and in neuroscientific research. More directly, however, the signals it picks up are specific enough that they can be mapped to a specific action.
In Perri's case, that action is an attack, often one of Elden Ring's more impactful spells, but even that single action is the result of hours of testing and training. First, the EEG has to figure out what frequency wavelengths a specific action is giving off, then where they're coming from, then how 'loud' they are within the brain. "That, holistically over the whole brain, is a pattern of brain activity. And then you record what you look like when you're talking, and it remembers what your brain looks like for that."
After going viral for playing Elden Ring with her brain. Twitch streamer @perrikaryal was accused by some of faking her experiment. So she has even further explained how her EEG works with her brain activity to use abilities in the game pic.twitter.com/z94LyCDeAOFebruary 7, 2023
The clip above shows what that process looks like, but the next step is recording the pattern required for an attack. For Perri, "the attacking is imagining pushing something heavy forwards." A little extra coding, and that imaginary push can be bound to an attack key.
If that sounds too simple to be true, it's because it is. When we spoke, the only input Perri had achieved was attacking. Other activities, like moving or using an Estus Flask, are still bound to a traditional controller, and, having started from scratch a few times, it took "maybe 11 hours of straight training." Even then, Perri says she's not happy with the results –"it works but it's sometimes unreliable and I have to keep adjusting it." 30 minutes before a stream, there'll be more training, and that sometimes extends into the broadcasts. In an ideal world, Perri says she'd start from scratch, deleting all her previous trials and doing it "several hundred times over the course of a week," just to really nail down that single mental movement.
Even with all that effort in advance, there's no guarantee of getting results. A single action somewhere in the back of the mind can disrupt the reading and render the thought pattern ineffective: "You can train the software as much as you want, but you're not always guaranteed that you're going to be doing the same thing. Sometimes I absent-mindedly tap my foot, and that completely messes up the whole thing, because it adds a little 'squiggle' somewhere else."
Sometimes, the system will work perfectly in testing, only for the nerves of performing in front of an audience to disrupt it in a live environment. Sometimes, concentrating on a specific thought becomes impossible when being charged down by a huge, hulking monster. Fatigue plays a part too, and so, Perri thinks, does the EEG's battery capacity. If any of those things contributes to a different pattern of brain activity, the EEG won't pick up the desire to attack, and the keybind won't be triggered, no matter how much mental effort is put in. "It feels like your brain is broken," she says.
Perri's experience with EEGs dates back to her time at university. She has a Master's Degree in Psychology, and came across the technology during the little bits of neuroscience she tackled at school. "I always thought it was these really expensive, massive machines that you had to have a medical degree to use," she says, but the headset she uses in her streams is a consumer model that she bought for around £1,000. "I thought, 'hey, I have savings. That's not not doable'." From there, curiosity took over. "'Could you keybind this? Or could you display this over a horror game? What would it look like at a jumpscare?' That's what I started doing. So it was just something I knew about, found accidentally, thought would be really cool. Now I'm thinking about all the possibilities, and where you can go." Perri herself isn't involved directly in this aspect of the technology, but notes, "the potential for people with certain disabilities and accessibility."
Beyond video games, those aspects of EEG are already being tested. "The first time they did something like this, with the headset controlling a robot, was in 1988. And that is a long time for science. And then they've been successfully controlling wheelchairs." Perri's headset seems futuristic, but she says that the potential that the technology offers is "maybe [...] closer than we think if it gets enough research and funding. If we can consider setting up a commune on Mars in the next 100 years, this is going to be closer."
Unfortunately, there's still the barrier of the EEG's gross physicality to overcome. If Perri gets tired, the inputs are clunkier. The sensor pads can dry out and become less receptive, and Perri's hair has "not survived" the vast quantities of saline solution that is required to freshen them up. Conversely, all that time spent concentrating means that sweat starts to impede the process too. All that is "worth it for the content," but then there's the hardware issues. Some of those are with the headset – the delicate nature of the wires meant that Perri's first model snapped, and plenty of administrative maintenance is required to prevent the electrodes from "frazzling" – but others are with our own hardware: "I honestly think the main limitations are, up to a certain point, what we actually know about the brain."
Once all those physical issues were overcome, the next obstacle was the Lands Between itself. The experiment started with Minecraft, and Perri says she plans to return to the block-builder one day, but that the desire for a challenge is what drove her to Elden Ring. As much as any FromSoft game can be, her current effort is a pacifist run, "if there's loads of things around and I have to dodge and weave and dive, then I think it's unlikely that I'll be able to trigger the command quickly enough because of all the other distractions going on." If she can get a straight run with Torrent, there's an opportunity for an attack from horseback, but at least for now, the focus has been on making a straight shot to the objective.
That worked pretty well, at least for a while. Early clips showed Perri using massive spells while hiding a long way behind a spirit summon, blasting bosses apart from a safe distance. "What [the EEG] works really well with is powerful hits when you've got the time to adjust for the latency," she says. "It works great from a distance. But what it struggled with is the well-timed, quick succession stuff."
Unfortunately, for some bosses, those quick hits are all but a necessity. Perri adds: "Oh, Rennala... I've never Googled and tried to memorize no-hit runs before." For a mage build, Rennala, Queen of the Full Moon, is the run-killer. A huge amount of magic resistance means that spells all-but bounce off her. "You have to hit her, close to her, surrounded by things that keep biting you in the arm. I think I can do it. I think I found a way through perseverance, but that sort of thing is just really, really challenging." Since we spoke, Perri has made it past Rennala, but her efforts are a far cry from the people who are literally dancing through The Lands Between.
Look Ma(rgit), no hands
While Perri probably won't be playing Elden Ring exclusively with her mind any time soon, the game offers plenty of opportunities to map new brain patterns to new actions. Eventually, however, the goal is "to do something that's completely hands-free." The gyro controllers within the EEG could make it perfect for games like Mario Kart or Monkey Ball. Minecraft beckons, as do FPS games, and Perri wants to return to horror games, displaying her brain patterns as she deals with the fear and stress inherent to that genre.
For all those ideas, she presents the EEG streams as something of a whim: "I was taking a hit on my channel, quite a lot – my average number of viewers halved, but I thought 'this is really cool, and this is really good content, and I want to do this. It might not be that popular, it might be a bit boring, but I thought it was worth doing. But then clearly there is an audience. That's really encouraging, and it makes me want to push myself harder, see what's possible."
She is playing Elden Ring... with her brain. Twitch streamer @perrikaryal has hooked up an EEG to her brain, where different brain activity is key bound to different abilities in gameI am frikin mindblown pic.twitter.com/lzquC2DdV4January 23, 2023
The reception – multiple clips from Perri's streams have gone viral, and her follower count on Twitch spiked in their wake – has also meant that she "really wants to get involved in trying to make it useful beyond gaming." Simply experimenting with the technology is "an excellent motivation for content creation," but "there is definitely more to be done here."
In part, that's the result of the relative ignorance around the subject matter. Mental health and the human brain are still hugely enigmatic subjects, and Perri says she's faced plenty of people who say that her efforts with the EEG are fake. "But that's quite fun to deal with. Even when people are doubting that it's real, even that is really encouraging," she says. "It's such a new science, and so few people in the public don't get told about his stuff. It's not broadcasted like other sciences are. There's so much that isn't shared, so people saying 'there's no way that this can possibly be real' is just affirming that we need to raise awareness."
"For mental health, the same thing happens there; 'there's no way that someone could feel this way or do this thing in a rational manner', and actually, of course they can, because that's how the brain works. If it feels like I can do a tiny part in bringing a little bit of attention and awareness to this thing, then that's really cool, that's a life goal ticked."
For a very different big-brain play, this creator made a massive, papercraft Miyazaki.