Relax! Because video games will soon react to your physiological arousal

As technologies multiply, so too do our uses for them. In fact, video games in particular started out as nothing more than a form of entertainment – some would say “mindless entertainment.” But especially in recent years, games have turned from “fun” to “therapeutic” and “educational,” among having other cognitive and social benefits. This article won’t be about these benefits, though, but about where the industry is headed in terms of its biggest new hardware innovations, and why non-gamers should care about them. So far, it looks like the next big thing is a controller that can actually sense your physiological arousal.

A Brief History of Hardware Developments

After the Nintendo came out with its “Wii Remote” controller in 2006, which also had the standard buttons the company is known for, it introduced a system of sensors whereby people’s physical actions could influence the virtual world in the video games. This wasn’t the first time to make such hardware – “Yoshi’s Safari,” another Nintendo game from 1993, had a similar but more rudimentary system. And even before that, there was the game “Duck Hunt,” which had the most basic of such systems, which dates back to 1984. However, the Wii Remote was not just an add-on device for a few specific games like the previous technologies; it was used for pretty much every game on the Wii console.

It’s no surprise that the three major players in the console gaming industry – Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft – are also trying to come up with the next big game-changer, which is why they file for patents on every new innovation they think of. And yet, each company takes certain ideas from the others in order to compete and stay current. This is why Sony developed the “Playstation Move,” which is obviously modeled after the Wii Remote.

But then, last year, Microsoft came out with the Kinect for the Xbox console, which is already being used for robotics research, and will probably have a substantial impact on technology in the near future. The Kinect was, of course, not the first video game device to do away with controllers, but it is the most technologically advanced one to date. It seemed that Kinect may have been the one to end the industry’s run of hand-held remote controllers, but new technologies are still being developed that might make such a radical shift harder to make.

Before I discuss them, I should note that I have no personal judgment on how entertaining any of these devices are to play (all though “Duck Hunt,” with it’s plastic orage gun controller, brings back some fond memories). I do believe, however, that they are important for us, regardless of whether or not you actually play video games.

Stimulating Progress

In 2009, Nintendo announced a new device that would connect to its controller, called the “Wii Vitality” (see below). Its release has been repeatedly delayed because of the sensor’s so-far lackluster quality, but it was one of the first video game devices to concern itself with utilizing a player’s level of arousal in the virtual world. No one actually knows how innovative this technology is going to be, and most people are skeptical, with comments such as this device being nothing more than a “pulse detector.”

"Wii Polygraph" has not officially been announced yet

While it is still too early to know how well the Vitality will perform, we can at least know that people are taking notice. According to a report from two days ago on the gaming blog Siliconera, Sony has patented an interesting new technology for their PS3 and handheld systems. The PS3 controller, to be called the “Biometric” controller, will measure three physiological responses, and make that affect your game.

So what exactly is being measured? Galvanic skin resistance (like an old-fashioned lie detector), electrocardio data (like a heart-rate monitor), and electro-muscular data (like an… electro-musclar data detector…). That is to say, the biometric controller will measure how sweaty you are, your heart-beat, and your muscle movements. Siliconera reports a list that Sony gave on how this technology may be used:

  • Weapons that change depending on how stressed you are. An increase in stress level could make a weapon more accurate or less steady, which will make it difficult to target an enemy. Sony specifically mentions a sniper situation where the weapon becomes more steady if you’re relaxed.
  • Tensing up your muscles to withstand an attack or charge up a shield.
  • A video game character whose facial expressions, movements, posture, and even voice changes depending on your biometric data. For example, this character will sweat when a player is nervous.
  • An adrenaline style boost which will let you run faster, jump higher, and punch harder when stressed.
  • A health bar that depletes more rapidly if you have a high stress level.
  • An attack button that changes a character’s move depending if the player is stressed or relaxed.
  • Background music and scenery that changes depending on your stress level. Matching music is one example, but Sony also proposes to change music to make a player more relaxed. Brightness of objects and the zoom level, representing a higher level of focus, are two ideas for scenery.
  • A game that adapts difficulty levels depending on a player’s stress level.

Escapist Magazine think that Sony is “in real danger of making games harder for you when you’re at your worst,” but they’re really only thinking of the new hardware in terms of the old software. Obviously if it makes playing a game too difficult, they can make the game easier while keeping the hardware the same. I instead think of this as “more realistic,” which it will be if the sensors work properly. And that’s where this controller starts to get interesting.

Why Should We Care?

I mentioned that this is something we should all care about above, and I do indeed believe so. I predict that therapy of all sorts will gradually be conducted more “virtually” and less “personally” as the years go on. I don’t know if this will happen in my lifetime, but probably in the not-too-distant future, the way people think of video game-related technology will dramatically change. It will move from a stereotype of nerdy niche-markets and sub-cultures, to a more inclusive notion where a technology’s value is not tied solely to how entertaining it is, but to its potential for real-world applications.

To explicitly specify some of my predictions: I expect that people will be consulting artificial intelligence agents for some psychotherapy (not all types though, of course) instead of educated psychologists; not only because there will be too many people, but because we’ll feel more comfortable dealing with robots. I also think that they will use video games on a regular basis in order to assist with consistent exercise and physical health; and video games will be used to facilitate rehabilitation in physically-injured people – from wounded soldiers, to car accident victims. I can’t imagine whether or not these sound realistic, but I believe that we are headed in that direction. The biometric controller is, at the very least, going to be able to help with the last of these predictions – rehabilitation.

I’m referring to “biofeedback,” the process of using devices to display one’s physiological functions in the hopes that you will be better able to control them. Biofeedback is an important thing for many hospital-bound patients, and I can certainly imagine people using the Biometric PS3 controller in many other contexts.

For example, people with anxiety or emotional problems – such as those with social phobia, or anger issues – could engage in an activity of video gaming, with the goal of willfully regulating their emotions. The low-pressure scenario may be a step up, as well as a way for people to practice biofeedback procedures away from the clinical setting. But of course, I am only speaking of the hardware. We still need someone to make the software that will allow us to utilize this hardware.

Nevertheless, I expect that we will get there. As with many innovations that come from the video game industry, what starts with mere “mindless fun” might end up as a solution to a real-world problem.

Photo Credit: Mads Peitersen
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One Response to Relax! Because video games will soon react to your physiological arousal

  1. Video is the usual media these days and games take it to the level where you surely do have to have good eye, hand and occasionally, body abilities.

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