When you think about Atari hardware, you probably think of the iconic Atari 2600 joystick with its little red button. You likely do not think of the Atari Mindlink which was the company's unreleased attempt at directly controlling video games with the awesome power of your brain. How could such a thing be possible in 1984? Gizmodo explains as part of a feature on unreleased gadgets.
Have you ever tried to control a video game... with your mind? That was the idea behind Atari’s Mindlink controller, which was on display at CES in 1984. Atari claimed that the device could pick up electrical impulses from your head. Supposedly all you needed to do was tighten and relax the muscles in your forehead to influence the action on the screen.
Needless to say, mind control controllers weren’t quite ready for primetime in the early 1980s. And despite claims that the Mindlink would be in stores by Fall of 1985, the product was scrapped.
The Mindlink was intended to work with the Atari 2600, 7800, and the company's home computer line, so I have to praise them for planning a peripheral with a wide-reaching audience. Consider today's add-ons that work with one console alone such as Sony's upcoming PlayStation VR headset exclusively for the PlayStation 4 or Microsoft's various models of Kinect for its Xbox line which are not interchangeable across console models. At least Nintendo has spanned generations with its GameCube controllers (for GameCube and Wii) and Wii remote (Wii and Wii U).
As for Mindlink's functionality, it was rather limited. Pong and Breakout were used for demos, although few people were able to get their hands heads on the prototypes. The initial test units could only control up-down and left-right controls (for which Pong and Breakout are perfect), but lab tests on other games were promising. Maybe we should be glad that this idea faded away and didn't evolve with gaming hardware over the years. If basic controls were a challenge, imagine how involved today's version of Minklink technology would be with all of the buttons and control sticks present on a modern controller. I get a headache just thinking about it.
For a deep dive on the Mindlink, check out the history of the peripheral at The Atari Museum. They have a fascinating look at how the technology developed, how it overpromised and underdelivered, how it nearly found a second life with the Special Olympics, and why it ended up in the dustbin of history.