Finnish science fiction author and co-founder of biotech startup Helix Nano, Hannu Rajaniemi, has developed interactive fiction that uses a simple brain scanner to analyze the reader’s reactions and to guide the development of the story in response. Rajaniemi and his friend Sam Halliday, a mathematician and data scientist, debuted their creation which he calls “neurofiction,” at the annual Edinburgh International Science Festival, which took place last April. The project is also supported by New Media Scotland.
The story changes itself in response to the reader’s brain activity, specifically by reading the electrical activity of neurons. Using a simple, off-the-shelf electroencephalography headset, an EMOTIV Epoc headset, it uses an algorithm to determine what themes appeal most to each reader. The story then guides them on a unique path through the story, including to multiple possible endings. Specifically, the story tended to branch in different directions depending on whether the reader showed more affinity for ‘life’ or ‘death’ imagery. “It’s an interactive fiction piece, like a Choose Your Own Adventure, but without conscious choice,” says Rajaniemi, describing his work on Episode 220 of Wired’s “Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy” podcast.
The story, called Snow White is Dead, is a take on the classic fairy tale.
According to Rajaniemi, the technology was warmly received at the festival. “I think people enjoy the experience, I think people enjoy the feeling of being in control, even if it’s to some extent an illusion” he said.
Rajaniemi emphasizes that the story is a very simple demonstration, and that the technology offers a number of interesting uses. In particular, he says “It would be really cool to see if, in a science fictional context, we could find elements that would elicit a ‘sense of wonder,’ for example, and then try to write a story that optimizes for those.” He describes the need for much more sophisticated brain scanners than what they currently have access to in order to achieve such a goal.
The creators have made the software behind their ‘neurofiction’ open source, in order to encourage innovation and provide developers and authors with the tools they need to tell their stories in a similar way.
Hanna Rajaniemi is known for his science fiction novels including The Quantum Thief, The Fractal Prince, as well as a number of short stories. His startup, Helix Nano, works at “innovating at the emerging intersection of software and biomedicine,” according to their website.