Tag Archives: Neurogaming Conference

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.

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Neurogaming Conference 2013: Expo Highlights Part 1

15 Aug

In my previous post, I talked a bit about Neurogaming in general. However, how does one even find themselves at a Neurogaming Conference? Good question, and someone should really aggregate a list of responses, because I’m sure it would be a fascinating read. Speaking for myself, earlier this year, I was searching for a project that would allow me to learn about robotics, Arduino, interactivity, etc., and I came across a book called “DIY Make a Mind-Controlled Arduino Robot.”

Lead me not into temptation

Lead me not into temptation

For $4.99, if your curiosity can resist this type of temptation, then your willpower is an order of magnitude stronger than mine. The details of this project are best discussed in a future posting, but in short, it makes use of a NeuroSky MindWave, which is a consumer-grade EEG headset priced at less than $100 that performs rudimentary analysis of your brainwaves, and interfaces with a software development environment and an “app store” featuring games, brain training, interactive films, etc. It didn’t take long to discover that there is a thriving community of makers, researchers, artists, and hobbyists who are actively monkeying around with these types of devices with astonishing results. From there, it didn’t take long to stumble on the conference.

The conference featured an excellent lineup of speakers participating in panels on a wide variety of topics, but in this post, I’m going to focus on the Expo. There were a modest but diverse array of exhibitors ranging from EEG headset manufacturers to research organizations to gaming startups to the city of Helsinki which apparently has a high concentration of both the gaming industry (Angry Birds) and neuroscience, go figure. For my part, my body was just moving my head around the room trying to figure out what I could plug it into, so here are some of the highlights.

If you look closely, you can see the headset

If you look closely, you can see the headset

Puzzlebox: The Puzzlebox booth allowed visitors to test-fly their Orbit product, which is a small helicopter that you can control with your brain using a NeuroSky headset. Because I had some prior experience with this type of headset, I was able to sustain flight for approx. 20 seconds on my first try. At this point, the level of control is essentially limited to on/off, or in this case fly/don’t fly. From what I understand about NeuroSky’s platform, it would be tricky to develop a product that you could both fly AND direct (e.g., turn right, turn left, etc.). The employee at the booth told me that they are planning to release additional functionality in the form of software upgrades to combat the trend of planned obsolescence that seems to be the norm in toys (and pretty much everything else) these days. She also mentioned that the founder had designed a mind-controlled pyrokinetic installation, but that it wasn’t quite ready for public consumption. So, basically, you’re one EEG headset away from recreating Stephen King’s Firestarter in the comfort of your own home. On a serious note, there is clearly a lot of creativity and energy at this company, and I have a lot of respect for their commitment to maintaining the value in their products through periodic updates. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Foc.us: The founders of this company were among the friendliest people at the whole conference. They market a different sort of headset. Rather than trying to figure out what electrical signals are being generated by your brain, their device actually stimulates your brain using a method called transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS). The foc.us is marketed toward gamers, but the technique has a history of therapeutic application and as a cognitive aid. This device is unregulated by the FDA and was essentially self-funded, but when you think about the things that are FDA-approved and funded by institutional capital, you quickly realize how this might actually be a good thing. So I tried it. The guys advised that you probably shouldn’t use it for more than 40 minutes in 1 day. I wore it for about 7 minutes., and probably would have kept going, but there were people waiting. The sensation can best be described as “prickly,” and lives in a grey area between “annoying” and “not quite painful.”

I'll take this over Olestra any day

I’ll take this over Olestra any day

It reminded me of how I feel about exercise — you’re basically lying to yourself if you think that it feels good, but you exert a temporary override on your subjective definition of “tolerable.” So did it do anything? I’m glad that I tried it, but it’s difficult to get a handle on the effects after only one trial. I do know that while I was wearing it, I was talking the founders’ ears off by providing them unsolicited business advice about the product. They seemed like good ideas at the time! I want to say that I felt a little bit more tuned in and focused afterward, but in the interest of full disclosure, it was evening, and I realized the bar had just opened. Generally, it’s exciting to see technology that was previously the domain of medical research and military training make its way into the mainstream.

In my next post, I’ll share a few more mind-blowing highlights and more about the bar.

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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