Tag Archives: gaming

GDC 2014: The Pursuit of Loneliness

26 Mar

Last week, I attended the 2014 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco — it’s pretty hard to find a group of companies and people that is so unapologetically hell-bent on mind-melting. I won’t be providing yet another rehash of the headline-making announcements from Sony and Oculus, but I am excited to share some of the other experiences that caught my attention.

Before we get started, about a year ago, I had a lot of good things to say about my first experience wearing Oculus Rift. I’m still a big fan, but it was interesting to see the number of different ways that exhibitors incorporated it into their demos at GDC. Instead of being the star attraction, it was often a complement to some other amazing technology that the company was showing off. Not only is the experience of total audiovisual isolation/replacement evolving into a mainstay, but additional technology is being incorporated to allow one to remain in the experience longer and deeper.

OK, enough reflection. Onward into the bold, bright, and lonely future!

IMG_0682

Also effective as sunglasses

Sulon: I think the business plan for this company is, “Let’s take everything and then do that.” The Cortex (the crazy thing on my head in the picture)  uses an Oculus Rift to provide both Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality in conjunction with spatial scanners, handheld game controllers, wireless technology, a video camera, an Android tablet, and who knows what else. What does this mean? The camera provides a video feed of your environment that is displayed within the OR, but it is “augmented” with virtual objects that you could shoot at using the controllers. One of the augmentations looked like a teleporter beam and when I walked into it, the entire environment changed to virtual reality. However, in both cases, the sensors incorporated the physical walls of the room into the digital environment. In VR mode, it was possible to physically walk through the real room, experienced as a purely digital room, and proximity sensors would beep to let you know if you were about to walk into a wall. The Cortex is an ambitious mashup of cutting-edge technology and if they can work out the kinks, the whole might be greater than the sum of its parts.

Condition One Camera

Be careful where you point that thing!

Condition One: This camera was quite a spectacle on its own. It shoots in 360 degrees simultaneously in high resolution and at a high frame rate. At the booth, I used Oculus Rift to watch a short movie that was shot with the rig. Actually, it was three unrelated shorts that provided a good showcase of different styles and content. This was probably one of the only booths at GDC that featured an OR in a non-interactive context. However, part of the allure of VR is the experience of being instantly transported to another world. In a gaming context, I often forget what I’m supposed to be doing because I enjoy luxuriating in the visually rich, all-encompassing surroundings. It was a nice change to be able to relax and observe and not worry about being shot at or accomplishing something. It was also refreshing to see live action content as opposed to CG. Although these shorts had a non-narrative, verite style to them, I could see how this type of production could also be effective for a sophisticated and complex narrative piece.

Not me on Virtuix Omni

Not me rigged with PrioVR

Virtuix & PrioVR: I’m lumping these companies together because they fall into the category of, “Wow, this looks super cool, but it’s taking too long to cycle people through the demo so I’m going to pass.” Both companies feature technologies that complement the Oculus Rift with a sense of full-body immersion. The Virtuix Omni allows you to physically pace through a virtual environment using an array of proximity sensors embedded in a treadmill that parse data generated by special shoes that you need to wear. Seriously. PrioVR uses inertial sensors attached to various parts of your body to provide full body tracking. If any of this sounds remotely interesting and you were alive during or heard of the 1980s, I highly recommend Ready Player One. This book seems incredibly prescient except that many of the things that it anticipates happening 30 years from now happened last week. And it was written two years ago. Oops.

IDNA: In their own words, “IDNA is a new kind of storytelling experience at the crossing between an animation film, a choose-your-own-adventure book, and a video game. Each scene of the story is designed in 360 degrees; it’s up to you to decide where to look, simply by moving your device around you. The narrative is never twice the same, as your focus will seamlessly influence the course of the story.” Basically, it’s the narrative experience I was jonesing for in my blurb about Condition One. Talk about wish fulfillment. Recognizing that not many people have an Oculus Rift, they developed a “poor-man’s VR” version using an iPad. Holding the iPad up and rotating in a circle provides a decent emulation of wearing a HMD and turning your head. At the worst, you might be mistaken for one of those people who uses their iPad as a camera. I know it sounds like I’m poking fun at them, but I’m not; I think it’s a great idea, and a clever and effective workaround for a technology that is still very much in transition. Even better, this is basically the product of a handful of smart folks from Switzerland who are doing something creative. It’s incredibly annoying when Google/Motorola do essentially the same thing, restrict it to a phone that nobody wants, and make it sound like it’s the second coming of bread.

There was more to GDC than VR, and I was glad to see it. After spending about ten continuous minutes in one of these demos, I found it very difficult to reintegrate with my surroundings. I was trying to have an intelligent conversation with one of the representatives at the booth, but the part of my brain that was responsible for speech and words had come totally unhinged. Welcome to your future.

And now for some more than honorable mentions of people who are just doing fun, cool, stuff for its own sake.

A group of people playing together. No, this wasn’t the history exhibit.

Hot Shots: This game won the All In One Platform Award in the Intel App Innovation Contest. There’s no immersion and no storytelling, but I’m mentioning it for a couple reasons. 1) The developer was hosting the demo, and he was very excited to be there. In his own words, winning this contest created a massive change in his life and he was thrilled. It was contagious to see someone so excited and optimistic and talented. 2) His game was fun. It supported up to nine people playing it at once around a fairly big touchscreen. I appreciated that it’s too epic to play on a phone or a tablet, not really playable on a wall-mounted TV screen, and basically designed to bring people together to have fun. Total chaos. I was horrible at it. Still had a great time. Hope this is the first of many wins for this team.

Sorry, no points for urinating in the classroom

Tenya Wanya Teens: This game was in the alternative control exhibit. It’s a self-described “party game” for two players who each have about 16 buttons. The gameplay is simple. Press the colored button to trigger the action that’s appropriate for the situation. Actions include urinating, farting, kicking, punching, confessing undying love, etc. There’s just one wrinkle: the colors of the buttons keep changing, so not all actions are appropriate for every situation. The game lasted about five minutes and we laughed the whole way through. Unexpected, random, zany fun.

Goat Simulator: Thinking about the fact that people got together to make this has become my new happy place. Follow the link, watch the trailer. This is why we have games. Thank you Coffee Stain Studios.

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Neurogaming Conference 2013: Expo Highlights Part 2

16 Aug
'Nuff Said

‘Nuff Said

In my previous post, I talked about some of the highlights from the 2013 Neurogaming Conference and Expo. Did I mention that the Expo was in a nightclub? So basically on a pleasant weekday in early May, while you were probably engaged in performing or avoiding something at work, I was hanging out in a nightclub making drones fly around with my brain. Man, I’ve always wanted to say that!

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, the bar had just opened. My go-to industry event cocktail tends to be a Gin & Tonic. It tastes great in a plastic cup and it’s almost impossible to screw up. So drink in hand, I continued my explorations.

Tactical Haptics: These guys are developing a technology called Reactive Grip which is partially based on technologies developed out of the University of Utah. I’m not a gamer, so please feel free to correct me if I get some of this wrong. In a sense, they are extending the general paradigm of a motion-based game controller such as the Razer Hydra by Sixense by adding haptic feedback. Sounds straightforward enough, but it’s not. It was one of my favorite demos at the Expo, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. Basically, my limited experience with haptic feedback is that it’s like the 3D of the gaming world. With rare exception, studios are churning out 3D movies because they feel like they’re supposed to, and the end result is an obligatory, thoughtlessly-executed assault that is ultimately distracting. Haptic feedback can be the same way: I’m firing a big gun or driving a big car, my hands are buzzing, OK, I get it, tell me something I don’t know. I don’t feel that much more involved in the experience just because I’m feeling the exact same buzzing sensation too many times at totally predictable points.

Michael Buffer doesn't need Tactical Haptics

Michael Buffer doesn’t need Tactical Haptics

Tactical Haptics takes it much further. First of all, the haptic feedback in Reactive Grip is palm-facing so it’s accessing what is probably a more vulnerable and sensitive part of your hand. As a result, it lends itself to enhancing the types of actions that you would perform while gripping something with your palm and fingers. I have found a disconnect between the way you hold a standard haptic game controller and the object it intends to emulate, e.g., steering wheel, gun, etc. However, the form factor of Reactive Grip maps pretty closely to how you would hold a sword, for instance. In fact, one of their demos featured a virtual on-screen mannequin that you could hack with a sword. The continuity of what you see on the screen with what you feel in your hand is unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Even the level of feedback was regulated based on whether you were “touching” the mannequin or attempting to cut through it. The effect is uncanny, which is usually a good indication that you’re on to something big. Rather than providing a token enhancement, this technology really pulls you into the experience by engaging a critical sense in a well-considered way. These guys are looking to launch a kickstarter and they’re hustling on the road, making appearances at Meetups in the Bay Area. Worth checking out!

NextGen Interactions: I had been wanting to check this out for a while, because it allowed hands-on (or would that be heads-on) experience with the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. One of the guys in line mentioned that there had been “a line to get into the line” to try Oculus Rift at the recent Game Developers Conference, so waiting for a few minutes seemed like a good deal. Jason, the founder of NextGen Interactions, was allowing visitors to experience a prototype of a game that he was developing that featured the headset. At this point, it’s hard to say anything about experiencing Oculus Rift for the first time that hasn’t been said before, but the general consensus, with which I agree, can be accurately summed up as HOLY $#!+!!!

Better give the Oculus Rift a break

Better give the Oculus Rift a break

It’s real easy. You sit down in the chair, put on the goggles, and the world that you know disappears. Let me say that again. The world disappears. The first thing I did when I put on the goggles was look up and then look behind me. Yup, looking up at a tall building or back at an empty landscape. Total 360 degree immersion. Jason incorporated Razer Hydra as the controller which makes for a very intuitive way to move around, and once you start moving, it is impossible to continue believing that your chair is not actually moving. Actually, you basically forget all about the chair. Jason patiently walked me through the level he designed, where he had embedded some features that I appreciated including puzzles that required you to interact directly with your environment like picking up objects, stacking them, etc., which you literally do with your hands, thanks to the Hydra. As a testament to the level of immersion though, I found it very difficult to focus on what he was saying, because the whole concept of his voice coming in from some nightclub in San Francisco was totally alien to what was “real” for me, which was a post-apocalyptic landscape that I was intent to explore. After about ten minutes of this, it was time to move on, and I actually found it somewhat disappointing to return to the real world. Jason was meticulous about collecting feedback, and apparently my enjoyment of the Gin & Tonic made me a subject of interest with regard to the potential for motion sickness. I admit to a slight feeling of queasiness which I think I would have felt even without the drink. Hopefully, he had a control group. Oculus Rift did not invent virtual reality, but they seem to have figured out a way to engineer it in a way that will be consumer-friendly (i.e., it won’t cost thousands of dollars.) With developers like NextGen Interactions building content for the platform, it shouldn’t take long to catch on.

Coming Soon: Isaac Asimov posthumously sighs at what I’m getting out of the Foundation Trilogy.

Neurogaming Conference 2013: The Enchanting Prelude

13 Aug

For the purposes of this post, we’ll just pretend that “blog” is short for “backlog.” I attended the 1st Neurogaming Conference and Expo in San Francisco in May 2013, but chances are, you weren’t there, and you’ve never heard about Neurogaming, so we’re cool. By the way, I get a real kick out of the fact that this was the first incarnation of this event. This is one of the few instances where you can show up to the party early and have it be a good thing.

NO! This is not neurogaming!

NO! This is not neurogaming!

To start, I’m reminded of a comment that was made by one of the panelists on the “Investing in Neurogaming” panel. He basically said, “NEVER use the word Neurogaming with consumers.” This made me laugh out loud, because it explains the odd looks and slow backing-away when I mention the word to people. The conference actually touched on a number of interesting topics including medical/therapeutic and educational applications, and business/industry considerations in addition to “gaming.”

So, what does it mean exactly? Like any other recently-minted compound buzzword, the answer to that question is somewhat up-for-grabs, so I’ll take a hack at it. For me, neurogaming means the deliberate incorporation of emotional dynamics into the feedback loop of gameplay. Notice that I’m not talking about sensors or lidlocks or pharmaceuticals or mind control or anything like that. In fact, I’m deliberately taking a position that is not based in technology or biology, because it has helped me zero in on what fascinates me about it. I would go so far as to say that using my definition, arguably Neurogaming has been around for decades.

Have a seat = pwnd (literally)

Have a seat = pwnd (literally)

Take for instance (some of) the chess players that you see in a typical metropolitan park. Personally, I get spooked just walking by these guys, watching them move their pieces with efficient lethality before commandingly pummeling their timeclocks. If that doesn’t affect your game, then you should check your pulse.

People play games for any number of reasons, but some kind of emotional kick is almost always at the root of it. However, this dynamic potentially leads to a couple of dead ends.

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

First, games inherently require a level of abstract mental processing which competes with and interrupts the emotional experience. Unless you have a very vivid imagination, chess is still some funky-looking pieces on alternate-colored squares, and there’s probably a lot of ping-ponging going on inside your head that keeps you from developing an impractical level of emotional momentum. In fact, for certain games, it’s probably advisable to contain your emotions so that they don’t negatively impact your performance, in which case the emotional payoff is felt afterward. Second, despite the standard bluffs, threats, intimidation and occasional laughter that characterizes most gameplay chatter, there usually isn’t a method for any of this emotional energy to be utilized directly by the game itself. None of this is to suggest that emotions do not have a real effect on gameplay. Even a casual engagement with board games suggests that the opposite is true. However, my definition requires a “deliberate” as opposed to incidental incorporation of emotions. And what better means than technology to facilitate that; hence the conference.

Personally, looking at the trends, technologies, platforms, and prototypes that were discussed at the conference from a few steps back has allowed me to get a better grasp on their implications in other areas, including storytelling and experience design, regardless of whether an actual game is part of the equation.

What? You wanted to hear about the actual conference? I guess I got carried away. In the next post in this series, I share some stories and experiences from the event, including my highlights from the Expo where I attempt to plug my head into everything that I can.

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