With an odd-looking strip of black foam fastened to his forehead, the young man stared intently at an image of a manhole cover on his computer screen.

Suddenly, without touching the mouse or keyboard, he made the manhole cover rise into the virtual air.

A magic trick?

No, a video game - one that Hasan Ayaz, a Drexel University engineering student, was able to manipulate directly with his brain.

It's what the kids are learning in college these days. The video-game industry is coming off a record year with $9.5 billion in revenue - on a par with Hollywood box office receipts, gaming execs are fond of saying - and America's institutions of higher education are rushing to meet demand.

More than 200 colleges and technical schools have a gaming-related study program of some sort, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Drexel, La Salle, and the University of the Arts all have them. At the University of Pennsylvania, you can even get a doctorate in a related field: the modeling and animation of human movement.

Culture guardians bemoan the popularity of ultra-violent games such as the new Grand Theft Auto IV, which scored $500 million in sales in its first week. But the academic types are looking beyond these "first-person shooters" - an industry standby for years - to the future:

Games to train doctors. Games to train firefighters and rescue workers. Games to train airline pilots.

And that keyboard on your desk? That is so 2008.

The cutting edge is all about new kinds of "interfaces" - industry-speak for the ways that humans get computers to do their bidding.

Nintendo's Wii, the popular gadget that you swing through the air to mimic the motion of a baseball bat or boxing glove, is only the beginning.

At Drexel, they're developing a device that lets medical trainees conduct a simulated vaginal exam. The program uses a "haptic" device - meaning that although the probe is held in midair, users feel as if they are touching human tissue. The software can be tweaked so that motors in the device push back with varying degrees of resistance.

But why bother using your hands?

The foam-strip gizmo that Ayaz demonstrated recently goes to the next level: operating a computer directly with the brain.

Fantasy world

The brain game, a Drexel senior project, is called Lazybrains. The player assumes the role of Morby, a boy who has been transported to a dangerous fantasy world as punishment for lying on the couch all day and watching TV.

To escape, Morby has to battle various imaginary creatures and solve puzzles. While some involve using an old-fashioned computer keyboard, others simply require the player to concentrate really hard.

The device strapped to the player's forehead monitors brain activity - literally, the amount of oxygen coursing through his prefrontal cortex - by shining near-infrared light through his skull and measuring changes in the light's intensity.

It was developed by Drexel's biomedical engineers to monitor the brains of patients who are under anesthesia, but they were happy to lend it to their game-designing colleagues for a more light-hearted purpose.

Ayaz, a Ph.D. biomed candidate, said he "lifted" the manhole cover in the game by imagining that he was pushing up a bar on the screen that measured his brain activity.

He didn't literally have to think about lifting anything, said Paul Diefenbach, who codirects Drexel's video-game program with computer-science professor Frank Lee. The device is not reading the person's actual thoughts; it is merely a measure of blood flow. Once it's above a certain level, the game is instructed to raise a manhole, or send Morby on a magic-carpet ride, or complete any number of other objectives.

"You could think of ice cream," said Diefenbach, who previously ran his own software company, with clients that included Sony and Boeing.

Someday researchers hope to use such "brain-computer interfaces" for even more sophisticated tasks, such as manipulating prosthetic limbs. Another possibility is training people to cope with stress or pain.

But entertainment will always be a big focus.

Though its students sometimes design "serious" games, the Drexel program is called RePlay - short for Research and Play (http://replay.drexel.edu). It is a joint effort between two academic departments: computer science and digital media.

That's so the students are exposed to the many skills that go into making a game, ranging from hard-core programming to graphic design, Diefenbach said. More than 30 students graduate each year having taken the sequence of three to five courses.

Jim Borden, a digital-media senior who is working on the Lazybrains game, said his parents didn't quite get it at first.

"As long as he gets a job," said his father, Erich, a piano technician in Upstate New York.

Job market

Indeed, jobs are available.

After designing a virtual theme-park ride that took people back to feudal Japan, one Drexel grad student was hired last year by Disney.

Stephen Lane, director of the master's program at Penn, said his students have gone to work for game-makers Electronic Arts and Activision, as well as the DreamWorks movie studio.

Yet not all schools are providing what the market wants, said Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association.

Some slap the word game on their door "as a means of filling up their classroom," he said.

Miguel Nieves, a programmer at Majesco Entertainment in Edison, N.J., said many academic programs are so new it's too soon to say whether they will yield job-ready graduates.

When Nieves was looking at schools in 2000, there were just a handful of academic programs. One of the few was an all-gaming school affiliated with Nintendo: the DigiPen Institute of Technology.

Nieves applied there and got in, but his parents - a pharmacist and a psychiatrist - nixed the idea.

"They said, 'Why don't you just join the circus?' " he recalled.

So Nieves went to Drexel to study computer science instead, before the school had established a formal gaming program. He took the first gaming course the school ever offered, in 2004, then got an entry-level job at Majesco.

Last year, when Parenting magazine featured one of his projects, a game called Toon-Doku for the Nintendo DS system, his parents saw the light.

"They went crazy," Nieves recalled. "They definitely believe in what I'm doing now."

Contact staff writer Tom Avril
at 215-854-2430 or tavril@phillynews.com.