19 February, 2011


written by Blain Newport on Wednesday, 16 February, 2011

I saw a mention on Blues News about an interview with Valve Software head honcho Gabe Newell (Part 1, Part 2).

I had heard about Valve working with psychologists in some of the coverage surrounding Half-Life 2. I thought they'd worked on the facial animation system and gone back to their old jobs. It turns out there's a lot I didn't know.

Here's the first question of the interview.

In the past you spoke about using biometrics to measure players physical and emotional response to a game. Would this technology only apply to play-testing in order to add better design the games or would it be something that all players would be able to use? If it became an option for all players, how do you see this technology being integrated in a non-intrusive piece of hardware.

Huh? Seriously? That's your first question?

Gabe spent over eight minutes responding. I had no idea Valve was so far down this road. Heck, I didn't even know this was a road.

Galvanic Skin Response - by measuring how much a person is sweating, you can tell how excited he or she is. You can't tell if it's fear or anger or lust. But you know they're worked up about something. Valve's put this tech into mice (the mouse and keyboard kind, not the medical experiment kind), so they can measure player responses.

If you've played Left 4 Dead, you probably already know where this is going. Left 4 Dead is a cooperative game where AI opponents are set loose on the players by an algorithm called The Director. When the players are healthy and well armed, The Director sends more monsters. When they're beaten and running on empty, The Director may space the enemies out more, or spawn more helpful items for players to find. It's a good system. But now, it knows when they're afraid. That allows them to adjust The Director in very effective ways.

Gabe said he "would be surprised" if next gen controllers didn't have this tech integrated.

Eye tracking - While current console cameras and most webcams don't have the resolution, we may eventually get to the point where tracking eye movement and pupil dilation (which can indicate interest in what the viewer is looking at) becomes feasible. Advertisers have long used eye tracking to test that their ads draw viewers to their logo or product. But it's also very important to games where designers want to be sure players see cool scripted events, find clues to solve puzzles, and can see an enemy telegraphing an attack to react accordingly. As a side benefit, this might allow users to navigate menus and target by simply glancing around the screen.

No estimate of when this might be practical for mainstream use was given.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation - Outside of having EEG equipment implanted in your head, this was the freakiest thing discussed in the interview. Apparently researches have made significant progress in remotely stimulating specific parts of the brain with magnets. If you want the player to feel something, you directly stimulate the relevant portions of his or her brain. The long term effects on humans aren't known. But people are already willing to risk severe illness and death for the way alcohol and nicotine (not to mention illegal drugs) make them feel, so who knows?

Gabe thinks we may see this tech make it into some kind of game controller ten years from now. Although he might have been talking about a crazy expensive PC peripheral, and not any kind of mainstream application.

Before the Wii came out, most of this would have sounded like crazy talk. But from the Wii's success, the responses from the other console makers, and the push for 3D, it's obvious that the industry has a keen interest in any new differentiator.

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