Is the force trainer a scam?
January 1, 2010 6:55 PM   Subscribe

My wife bought me the Uncle Milton Star Wars Force Trainer. It's suposed to use brain waves to control a sphere. My rational self is convinced there is a scam on this. Does this thing work like they say it does or am I right?

Uncle Milton claims that this product uses EEG waves as you concentrate to control it. We are very skeptical as we noticed that you can talk and be otherwise occupied ad the ball will still do what it wants. I also noticed that the first few pages on a google search seem to be owned by this company.

Their website is

Is this a scam?
posted by arniec to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Post a link.
posted by dfriedman at 7:05 PM on January 1, 2010

The site ( claims to be a part of George Lucas' production company LucasFilms, which owns all the rights associated with official Star Wars-related products & tie-ins:

It's not a "scam"; it's junk sold to people who want to believe in the Force.
posted by dfriedman at 7:07 PM on January 1, 2010

Best answer: Based on people cracking the thing open, it appears to function as described. The parameters it's extracting from the EEG readout are unsurprisingly not very sophisticated, given that it's a toy. Given that it performs an FFT on the brainwave data, it's probably measuring the alpha and beta wave frequency content over the electrode site. More or less, it can use this to figure out whether you're 'concentrating' or not, and control the game portion accordingly.
posted by monocyte at 7:12 PM on January 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

dfriedman, the question I think is "does it really measure your brainwaves in any way?"

Reviews at Amazon are mixed: the first one is a low rating (1 star) and says the results for the first level of "training" are the same for anyone, and that it seems to be going through a rote program. I note with amusement that Amazon warns strongly that the Force Trainer is a choking hazard.

I cast about for objective reviews of the thing and didn't come up with a whole lot that addresses "is this eeg or no?" When I participated in a sleep study, the eeg harness was a large mesh that fit over my entire head. The toy says it's a simplified eeg, so maybe it doesn't need to be in contact with all points around the brain. Maybe the black pod on the headset sits on top of a particularly active part of the brain.

new scientist seems to give it a pass, saying "But at least two companies are bringing out cheap EEG headsets that can connect to computers via Bluetooth or USB. If they catch on, a whole range of games and software should become available, so they should be a better buy than standalone toys."
posted by boo_radley at 7:27 PM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Relevant link here.
posted by box at 7:35 PM on January 1, 2010

FPP about similar toy.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:08 PM on January 1, 2010

Neurofeedback, the process of training brainwaves, is not a scam. It's somewhat controversial, depending on who you talk to, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest there's something to it. I used to work in a neurofeedback lab run by a neurologist, who used it primarily to treat ADD in his patients.

A few things to keep in mind:

1) True neurofeedback requires extraordinarily sensitive electronics to pick up the signal and filter it from the noise. A very basic clinical setup will set you back 3-4 digits. Don't forget the gold-plated electrodes and conductive goop to affix it to your scalp.

2) Muscle movement generates electric fields, same as neurons. So things like blinking, talking, and other head movements will cause visible noise in the signal and interfere with the reading.

3) Neurofeedback is not really about conscious control. With training, your brain can learn to maintain certain frequencies preferentially over others, but it does this on its own. Monks and ordinary folk who have trained for years can slip into certain frequencies on command, but for everyone else, the gains made are unconscious. Even after weeks of training, you're not going to be able to change the signal just by thinking about it.

4) Lets say this thing works. You might want to consider exactly what you're training your brain to do. Clinical neurofeedback starts with treatment-oriented goals, and targets specific brain areas with the purpose of encouraging certain frequencies. The theory goes that certain frequencies are associated with changes in cognitive/affective function. I have no idea what brain area and frequency this toy targets, but it seems like that might be something worth knowing before you start the Jedi training.
posted by dephlogisticated at 2:08 AM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have seen brain-wave detectors demonstrated - and tried it myself. It's absolutely possible, with current technology and a funny hat, to detect whether someone is "concentrating" or not, and use it as a very simple (binary) control for a device.

I've also seen the Force Trainer, although I didn't try it myself. It did appear to work better for the demonstrator than for random booth visitors, so I wouldn't be surprised if it had a primitive version of such a detector. If so it's probably a single binary input (concentrating or not) and it's probably very error-prone - at worst approaching randomness.
posted by mmoncur at 3:51 AM on January 2, 2010

The NYTimes article said it used galvanic skin response.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:26 AM on January 2, 2010

If it's galvanic skin response, it may be doing something much simpler than reading your brain waves...

Your brain can subconsciously control your sweat gland activity, way below the threshold of actually "feeling sweaty." In the 80s there was a brief fad of biofeedback devices that sensed sweat gland activity by measuring the electrical resistance of the skin. They're quite fun to play with: with practice, you can raise and lower your skin's resistance within seconds just by thinking the right thoughts. But it's not brain waves.

That said, there are cheapish ($300) machines that can legitimately read brain waves. Emotiv Systems makes components that can be integrated into other manufacturer's products.
posted by miyabo at 10:11 AM on January 2, 2010

Uncle Milton claims that this product uses EEG waves as you concentrate to control it. We are very skeptical as we noticed that you can talk and be otherwise occupied ad the ball will still do what it wants.

Snarky answer: So your argument here is that your brain function stops when you open your mouth to talk? I've long suspected that was true of 99% of the human race, but it's nice to have confirmation.

Non-snarky answer: It may be able to measure brainwave activity at a fairly basic level, but we're not yet at the point where a $100 device can distinguish between "concentrating to control a floating ball" vs. "concentrating to solve a Sudoku puzzle" vs. "concentrating to carry on a conversation." Maybe it could tell the difference between "awake" and "asleep."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:37 PM on January 2, 2010

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