Brainpower: John Haaland designs mind-controlled software

The StarTribune
Variety, E section
Pages E1 and E7
Sunday, 9/13/1998

Brainpower (PDF)

John Haaland knits physics and psychic powers with his mind-controlled softareStaring at the computer screen, I am absorbed in a new game. After choosing which of the two images I want to take over the screen, ShapeChanger starts. Pixel by pixel the photos morph into one another, until a beep prompts me to begin. I’m trying to get a picture of a wave to take over a picture of the earth. It’s like Pac Man, but I can’t use a joystick, mouse, trackball or keyboard. I am trying to push these images around with my mind.

I find myself mentally groaning, like when I’m waiting for a call, staring at the phone and thinking “ring… RING!” After each three-minute run, the computer gives me my score and a little message, “Nice Try!” “Wow! Resonating!”


“Come on wave, go WAVE!” I stare hard for three minutes as the images blend. For a few seconds, the earth seems to be winning. Then the wave begins to dominate.

Beep. Damn, the earth won out. “Nice try,” the computer tells me.

A few more rounds of staring and begging the wave to fill the screen. I get low scores in the 20’s and 30’s. The manual says I’m not doing much better than random, 50-50 chance.

Beep. Try again. I glance once at the screen, and turn to the in-basket on my desk. In less than three minutes, the game stops. Success! The wave prevailed. Again I start the game, and go about my work day. I take a big drink of coffee, glance at the game over my cup, let my mind go blank. 96 out of 100! I repeat the thought pattern and again I get a score in the high 90’s. After 30 tries I get an overall score of 19, which is not great, but the feeling of mental power from the successful runs is intoxicating.

Though ShapeChanger would appear to be the product of New Age hippie types, the creator, Dr. John Haaland, has never done drugs in his life. The 62 year-old with a PhD in biophysics says he’d rather stretch his mind with Taekwondo and science. Because of Taekwondo, for instance, he says he can break boards with only the power of his concentration. If this sounds like the old spoon-bending craze, he does that, too.

He also plans on making quite a lot of money with various brain-powered devices he has patented. ShapeChanger, the first software product of Haaland’s company, Mindsong, has already sold out of 1,000 copies. Even if he can’t convince people he can bend spoons, he and other scientists and business leaders are gambling that they have the power to influence consumers.

In the summer of 1969, the year that thousands were “consciousness expanding” with drugs, meditation and trips to India, John Haaland was in Paris, studying the effects of lasers on cells. As a scientist working for Honeywell back in Minnesota, Haaland had helped design vehicles, space suits and control panels for Apollo missions. After his trip to Paris, however, he moved to New York where he worked for a firm which designed a systematic way to provide health examinations.

While Haaland was in New York, Pillsbury faced two major crises: the explosion of a mill in Buffalo, NY which killed 14 people, and increasing reports of food contaminated with wire and glass. Haaland had become familiar with Pillsbury executives while at Honeywell. The Minnesota-based company had had a contract with Honeywell providing food to astronauts. Haaland was hired as a consultant to deal with issues of product safety, human safety, crisis management and other duties best handled from an outsider’s point of view.

In 1973, Haaland became Pillsbury’s Director of Environmental Systems and by 1976 had risen to Corporate Vice President of Information Management and Environtmental Systems. In 1981, Haaland was given a dream job: as part of Pillsbury’s “Project Galaxy,” Haaland had 12 months to predict what the year 2000 would hold for the company. At the time, “far future studies” were popular, and Haaland was free to travel the world, on a mission to explore one of the risks Pillsbury sought to conquer: the unknown future. His goal was to concoct possible “scenarios” of Pillsbury’s future.

“That’s where I got into looking at consciousness,” says the 62-year-old Haaland. The scientist and executive decided to focus his research on new technologies: microprocessors, renewable energy, biotechnology and the physical well-being of people. What people ate, and how we would take care of ourselves was an extension of what Haaland had studied while at Honeywell. He became more interested in how people and technology would relate to one another.

In the late 70’s, “a very specific event occurred,” says Haaland. The Minneapolis Foundation sponsored an international “human consciousness.” It was there Haaland met many of the people who now staff MindSong or sit on its board of directors. Some have even invested $50,000 in Haaland’s venture. Pillsbury, Medtronic and other heavy Twin Cities hitters sent executives to the seminar. Soon after, The Pillsbury Foundation donated $15,000 to one of the presentors, a controversial scientist at Princeton who was studying the effects of consciousness on computers. The second year, according to Haaland, the research got “a little too far out,” and the company backed off from it’s charitable donation to the pioneering lab. What Haaland had seen, however, changed his life.

When he quit Pillsbury in 1983, he was permitted to use any of the non-confidential information he had discovered in Project Galaxy. Haaland decided to take those visions and share them with the world.

Although Wendell King worked with Haaland on the Apollo project at Honeywell in the 60’s, they two didn’t become friends until they were both at the Northstar Research and Development Institute at the University of Minnesota in the late 1970’s. The two quickly learned that they shared interests in what King today refers to as “fringe” science. King went on to become staff scientist for Medtronic, then director of Research and Development and finally left the company as a Vice President and General Manager in 1985.

Medtronic, says King, was “a very avante garde company.” In 1973, for instance, the corporate headquarters had a meditation center for it’s employees. Earl Bakken, the founder of Medtronic, and Chairman of the Board in the late 70’s, was also interested in those fringe developments. To explore those interests further, Bakken, King and John Haaland formed the Archeus Project. Monthly meetings were held at the Bakken Library in Edina. Everyone from University of Minnesota Professor Emeritus Otto Schmitt, who invented an essential component of television technology, to “[people] in St. Paul practicing Wicca” would attend. In addition to sponsoring lectures by researchers in the psychokinetic, or “PK” field, they held three or four “spoon bending parties”-gatherings at local restaurants where participants could “playfully” experiment with their own psychic abilities and attempt to bend the family silver.

Today King is a venture capitalist and can easily afford to bend all the silver he wants. In addition to funding the start-up a couple of medical device companies, he has also helped raise Rave Sports, a company which makes trampolines and other water toys for adults. He is also the Vice President of Development for MindSong. Though he says having to choose his favorite venture is like picking a favorite of his own four children, he says MindSong is “the one that most captures my interest and passion.”

King himself has explored his psychic powers, but it is his trust and respect for John Haaland which motivated him to work with his old friend. “If I only had to have conversations with one male for the rest of my life,” says King, “it would be him. He is one of the most creative, most intelligent, most well-read people I know.”

Haaland’s business partner and life partner of nine years, Susan Groh, 43, had so much faith in Haaland that she quit her job in 1995 and worked full-time for MindSong, developing their written and online materials. “He’s not much into material things,” says Groh. He continues to run the Rice Street Taekwondo Center where she first met him, even though it barely breaks even. “He does it for the love of it,” she says.

Haaland himself is built as if he could walk through a brick wall but has the visage of a gentle elder in a Star Trek episode. He says, in fact, that he once had a violent streak, but has not lost his temper since he attained his black belt in 1978. Instead, he focuses his intensity into his curiosity of the unseen.

“Science that is still in a[n]… exploratory stage,” says Haaland in his windowless Rice Street office, “is always going to be controversial.” Newton, Jung, Einstein–they all explained unknown forces with unknown theories. In particular, Haaland is betting on risky theories from two areas of science: statistics and quantum mechanics.

According to statisticians, a penny tossed will land heads up half the number of times it falls. The more you do it, the more likely you will have seemingly astounding “runs” of heads. A penny flipped 10,000 times will yield at least one run of 10 heads in a row. A million times, and there will be twenty such hits. Another important part of statistics and one which PK researchers like to cite, is that if everyone in the country started flipping pennies, there would be more instances of these patterns. Whether these extremes are anomalies or characteristic of chaos is what forms the great divide between researchers and skeptics.

The second ingredient in Haaland’s speculative recipe come from quantum theory. In quantum mechanics, simply, there is a form of energy which defies the rules of traditional physical laws. Electromagnetic energy, one of the four known forces in the world, dissipates with distance, like a frog jumping into a pond and sending out ripples which eventually disappear. Quantum theory, however, says that the frog can jump into a pond and simultaneously cause a coconut to fall in Bali. This quantum leap, which Einstein called “spooky action at a distance,” can travel faster than the speed of light and has been appropriated by psychic research advocates as proof of forces which can operate from “non-local” positions. In other words, one object can affect another object without visible means of force, and without regard to time or space. Which means not only can a person change an image on a screen, they can do it from thousands of miles away and even weeks before the software is launched.

In an article written for the Skeptical Inquirer, the magazine published by the formidable Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), Victor J. Stenger points out that quantum theories work only in tiny spaces, and have never been proven to operate on a human level.

“It’s very easy to get people to believe that things are significant,” says Charles Geyer, a statistics professor at the University of Minnesota. Geyer believes there is “a possibility” that the psychic software is legit, but he is “not convinced.” He believes that two much more pedestrian forces are at work. The statistics, he says, are either being handled by an amateur or falsified. “Real scientists do this. Professors at this very university do this.” As “PK” research becomes more scientific, Geyer asserts, it becomes “extremely hard to debunk this stuff.”

Before beginning a recent interview in his office, Haaland indicated that a light in the corner would be going on and off, according to his thoughts. He said that the light was on continuously before the reporter’s arrival, but started to flicker and remain dark as he became more anxious and guarded. The dim light continued to stay dark for the duration of the interview, but mysteriously blinked on at various times. Those were the moments when, says Haaland, he was talking about the things he cared most passionately about: Taekwondo, physics or the research being done at the Princeton lab he hopes to fund with the sales of his software, ShapeChanger.

Haaland tells me, however, that ShapeChanger is just a game. The ShifterCell, on the other hand, is the non-descript metal box into which is plugged the blinking floor lamp. This is the hardware Haaland says could one day be the envy of the military. It’s the patented technology that can be used to help heart patients who want to monitor their own unsteady heartbeats. It will change the lives of quadrapalegics. It will replace TV controls and computer mice. Like a dog napping in the corner whose ears perk up when she hears her name, the light blinks on when Haaland talks about it.

Haaland’s tendency to treat the ShifterCell as if it’s alive (Wendell King also has one and says it’s like having a pet) is eery. In the same way that the software gently encourages me with it’s typewritten cheers, the ShifterCell make me feel like there’s an observer in the room, giving me feedback, blinking its approval. If this thing is real, I could be witnessing the future of warfare, of education, of transportation, and of literature. Or I was being manipulated by the simplest of technologies, made to seem human, and therefore more readily embraceable.

Regardless of my skepticism, Haaland and King already have a meeting scheduled with a Chinese subcontractor who manufacturers Star Wars action figures for LucasFilms. The result would be a Yoda, for instance, that would move and respond to children’s thoughts, milking even more money from the catch phrase, “may the force be with you.” King says the Chinese executives are “really into it.”

After talking with Haaland, I think about the motion detector I just installed, electricity, Invisible Fencing, cell phones and garage door openers. I have to admit, when Wendell King says that he and Haaland are in the business of changing “the paradigm of the society we live in,” I’m intrigued. Would I have dismissed Steven Jobs so easily?

After a day of typing and added strain to my Carpal Tunnel wrist, I wish they would hurry up and develop this stuff. I would love to sit back and code my web page, balance my checkbook and chat with friends while putting on another pot of coffee. On the other hand, I realized that on the following Friday when I attempted another 30 rounds of mentally pushing waves over pictures of the earth, a 23-foot tsunami demolished a sizable chunk of Papua New Guinea.

Asked whether he will mind being ridiculed like the now-infamous cold fusion scientists in Utah, Haaland rapidly declines, “I would love to be laughed at publicly if it gets people to buy it.” Besides, says the man with the infectious grin, “I’m a martial artist and I like a good fight.”