A fairground ride that reads your mind?

23.02.2015 16:16

A small and scholarly laboratory in north
London is home to a very unusual chair. Its
scarlet plastic bucket seat is suspended in
the air on black hydraulic elbows, and
coloured wires and pipes straggle around
it like blood vessels. It is a mean-looking
thing, but this uninviting piece of
furniture is the product of three years’
work by scientists and designers from two
universities, and could represent the
beginning of a new breed of theme-park
The project’s doting parent is Brendan
Walker, an artist-engineer who, in his
capacity as an academic at the universities
of Middlesex and Nottingham, has
assembled a large, multidisciplinary team
of scientists and designers to create and
connect the ride’s numerous constituent
parts. The result is a “multi-reality
experience”, combining virtual reality,
neurological data and a pneumatic
“motion-platform”. More simply, it is a
thrill ride designed to react to its
occupant’s thoughts.
“One feature of rides over the past 200
years at fairgrounds and theme parks is
that they’re one-size-fits-all,” says Walker.
“The question is, will rides of the future
adapt to their riders individually?” If the
team is successful in its endeavour, the
finished ride will do just that: provide a
unique experience for each person who
tries it, and even train them to use their
mind in a particular way. “That’s a
satisfaction you don’t often get in modern
rides,” says Walker, “I think the idea that
you might be able to learn to control and
influence the ride, and actually be
rewarded for that, I think that will be a
unique thing.”
The rider must wear two separate sets of
headgear: a headset over their eyes which
provides the ride’s virtual visual world,
and an encephalograph on their scalp
which detects electrical activity from 14
areas of the brain. When wired up the
rider will find themselves tumbling
through a colourful tunnel. The seat will
jolt around in response to their head
movements, and they must try to control
their thoughts if they hope to control the
ride. Walker has mischievously named his
creation “Neurosis”. “It’s a play on the
cheesy names that rides have at
fairgrounds”, he says. “It suggests that,
somehow, people are going to be unsettled
or permanently scarred, when in fact all
they are doing is sitting on a wiggly chair
at the top of a scaffolding tower.”
At next month’s FutureFest, 100 volunteers
will put Neurosis through its paces. “Like
any unstable system, we may overshoot, we
may bounce around horribly,” warns
Walker breezily. “We may find someone
who’s timid, that we scare terribly.” The
idea, though, is that each volunteer’s
electroencephalogram (EEG) data and
personal testimony will be fed back into
the software to improve the experience
over the course of the two-day festival. As
Walker puts it, “the ride will be taught to
be more effective by the Sunday night than
it was on the Saturday morning”.
Before they even reach the chair, however,
each volunteer will be ceremonially
marched up a staircase in front of a crowd
of onlookers. “People aren’t used to
performing in front of others,” says
Walker, ”and that tension creates a level of
apprehension, anxiety. That’s a power I
can continue to use through the
performance.” In his red overalls and
disarming sideburns, Walker cuts a
theatrical figure, and identifies himself as
equal parts scientist and vaudevillian
ringmaster. “The fairground showman is
very much the character I take on in the
productions I create,” he says, and this
interest in theatrics is an important part of
how Neurosis will operate: as an
extravagant performance, with Walker as
its questionably benign director. “If I can
match a rider’s trajectory to what I’d
envisaged, I’ve got complete control over
them,” he says, “so, like Hitchcock, I can
take people through an emotional
This is a sinister claim, and even in the
comparatively unthreatening environment
of the lab, approaching the chair is a
matter of some apprehension. Perched on
the seat with the headset on, the view is
stunning, even peaceful, until I tilt my
head and the chair reacts accordingly,
juddering to the right with an angry hiss.
Before long, the colourful panorama inside
the headset is starting to spin and I have
forgotten where the floor is, as the seat
cranks in all directions. “Once you start
being able to concentrate,” promises
Walker, “you’ll actually start to stabilise,”
and by the end of my three minutes I had
begun to do this, though I am not surprised
to hear the the ride will be attended by a
box of sick-bags. I am unsteady when I
emerge, but I am also flushed with
excitement, and have even begun to
“appreciate the beauty”, as Walker
promised I would.
After training as an aeronautical engineer
and working on military aircraft, Walker
studied at the Royal College of Art and
went on to make interactive sculpture and
installation work. Theme-park rides have
provided him with the ideal outlet for this
particular combination of interests, and he
now works as a consultant on new rides at
Alton Towers and Thorpe Park.
“Fairground rides are a great collision of
entertainment and technology,” he says.
“People experience it as entertainment,
but then they can go around the back and
see the Wizard of Oz.”
This last comparison is, perhaps,
uncomfortably revealing. Oz’s wizard is an
innovative showman, but he is also a
phoney, and relies on dicey technology to
manipulate his gullible subjects. EEG
sensors of the kind used in Neurosis have
been the subject of considerable scrutiny
in the past two years, particularly since the
maker, Emotiv, raised $1.6m on Kickstarter
for its first commercial headset. If we are
to believe that the technology behind
Neurosis is legitimate, we must accept that
the 14 sensors on the Epoc headset can
accurately detect and transmit minute
electrical signals escaping from the brain
through the membranes and bone that
surround it. We must then accept that
certain combinations of these 14 signals
can be reliably interpreted as one of four
states of mind: engagement, excitement,
frustration and meditation.
This interpretation relies, according to
Walker, on a “fairly well established
algorithm, based on well published
academic research,” but he admits that the
science is far from “clean” and accepts that
consumer EEG naturally attracts
scepticism. Indeed, he almost seems to
welcome scepticism as a necessary
contribution to Neurosis’s performance,
since all great fairground experiences
depend, for their effect, on a measure of
the improbable or incredible. Walker
believes in the technology, and in the
ability of the riders to learn to increase
their “meditation” bar and be rewarded
with a smoother ride on the chair.
Nevertheless, he is unapologetic about the
manipulative aspects at play: “If you allow
yourself to be fooled, if you let the director
take you on a journey… you allow yourself
to believe that perhaps you are in mortal
danger.” He returns again to Alfred
Hitchcock’s capacity to manipulate his
audience’s fears; perhaps predictably, his
favourite Hitchcock is Vertigo.
To ramp up the tension of the Neurosis
experience, Walker has engaged the
services of a musician called The Mighty
Jungulator, who has created a digital
soundtrack that apparently responds to the
rider’s thought patterns. Similarly, the
virtual-reality tunnel through which the
rider will careen is made up of stained-
glass panels, also influenced by the EEG
patterns. “The Oculus Rift [headset]
effectively blindfolds [the rider],” explains
Walker, “so when you’re immersed in that
virtual world you lose a sense of spatial
orientation. And because you’re going to
be on a tower there’s the very real concern
that you might be tumbling off the
platform, so it’s a blurring of the tangible
and virtual worlds.”
This is the thrill that Walker hopes to
provide, and even if the technology at work
is, perhaps, imperfect, he takes pride in
the ability to expose the public to such
cutting-edge research. “Lots of people’s
first experience of lightbulbs and
waterwheels was at fairgrounds; it’s the
perfect place for people to come and
experiment with new technology. One of
the strengths of Neurosis is that people get
direct access to seeing just what the hell
you can do with the brain these days, and
to imagine what the implications are.”
It is also, of course, simply a thrill: that
shady injection of euphoria which, Walker
believes, human beings crave especially in
the secure modern world. If the premise of
Neurosis is that everyone has their own
individual appetite for adrenaline, I
wonder what it is that gets Walker’s pulse
racing. “I’ve always classed myself as a
voyeur,” he blithely replies. “Observing
people’s reactions, that gives me
excitement.” He laughs and sits back in his
chair. “Do I enjoy watching people being
uncomfortable? Maybe. Maybe.”
FutureFest preview
Taking over the Vinopolis complex on
London’s South Bank on 14-15 March,
FutureFest aims to give visitors a taste of
what the world might feel like in decades
to come. Curated by Scottish musician Pat
Kane, the programme features six themes:
thrills, music, money, machines,
democracy and the rapidly developing
cities of Africa. The event is run by the
charity Nesta, the UK’s innovation
foundation, and will be used to
complement Nesta’s work as a research
body and project funder. There will be a
chance to hear 36 speakers, including…Edward Snowden
The former National Security Agency
contractor and whistleblower will speak
via live video link on Saturday about the
future of democracy. Snowden made global
headlines in 2013 by leaking classified
information from the NSA detailing global
surveillance programmes. He currently
lives in Russia.
Vivienne Westwood
The fashion designer and activist will
speak on Saturday about the end of
democracy and take part in a video-link
discussion and interview with Snowden.
Adrian Cheok
Adrian Cheok is a professor of pervasive
computing at City University in London
and will demonstrate “Everysense
Everywhere Communication” and
discussing the “future of intense thrills”.
Jon Ronson
The journalist and author of the
bestselling The Psychopath Test and its
follow-up, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,
will be speaking on both Saturday and
Sunday, on the subjects “Humans 0,
Machines 1” and “Humans 1, Machines 0”.
Matthew Falla
The co-founder of information design
agency Signal Noise, Matthew Falla will
explore the connected world of sensor
networks, companies such as Google, the
“data-driven mirrors on the world” and
their implications for the freedom and
richness of our urban lives.
Jessica Bland
Formerly the senior policy adviser at the
Royal Society, Bland is now principal
researcher in futures at Nesta and will be
discussing “Program or be Programmed:
How Code Literacy Can Bring Our
Machines to Heel”. Jessica produces
reports, resources and events to stimulate
debate about the responsible use of
Paul Dolan
Dolan is professor of behavioural science
at LSE and his recent bestselling book
Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and
Purpose in Everyday Life aims to provide
insights into behavioural science and the
relationship between attention and of
Morgaine Gaye
Gaye, who describes herself as a food
futurologist, will give a talk entitled “The
Future of Confectionery” and will also be
demonstrating “a taste of the future” over
the weekend with Paul A Young, an award-
winning chocolatier.