Death Through Immersion

I was both fascinated and appalled last weekend when I read about the South Korean couple who let their own three month old child starve to death whilst they were obsessed with rearing a ‘virtual child’ in the SecondLife-style game Pruis online.

This was covered in a number of newspapers but a couple of good articles are the Telegraph and BBC News

I haven’t heard of anything exactly like this occurring before although there have been cases of individuals letting a child die in favour of some addiction (internet or otherwise). Perhaps someone can correct me and show that it’s more common than I imagine – and that would be even more disturbing.

I’m currently part of the supervisory team of Jo Iacovides who is doing a PhD in the area of engagement and informal learning (through games). We regularly have discussions about the level of immersion and the increasing depth of reward and interaction required by gamers. Heavy Rain for example takes gaming in a different direction. I read a good article in the Independent interviewing David Cage the creator of Heavy Rain. He’s quite weird and I’m not sure I totally agree with his future of gaming but you can’t deny that he is pushing boundaries.

I do start to wonder though about how far immersive gaming is taking us and where it will lead. There are already immersion suits for gamers and anyone who has tried the 3D Gaming experience will know that it does lead to a deeper sense of ‘being there’ – couple that with a richer set of ‘rules’ and characters with humanistic characteristics then add a sense of responsibility and reward – Now we start getting to towards the truely scarey SciFi Virtual Reality future as predicted by  Tad Williams “Otherworld” series or “Better Than Life”, “Matrix” et al.

When games and the virtual world gets to be more interesting and rewarding than the real world then VR will just be another type of psychoactive drug, a wonderful one in which people have a greater level of environmental choice than with a hallucinogenic and this will make it very powerful and dangerous. If you think I’m being fantastical here then read this Virtual World article  from 2008 and judge for yourself. I believe this Korean couple had a number of other things outside the game which influenced their behaviour but none the less it continues to make me uncomfortable.

We truly live in interesting times however I hope we’re going to be responsible about what we create for the next generation.

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Future Thoughts on Gaming

I’ve been listening to Jesse Schnell (Professor at Carnegie Mellon) on his thoughts about the future of gaming development. He talks about beyond facebook games and club Penguin et al. I think I predicted some of the ‘big things’ he mentions but he does have a point that the really big things are regularly unexpected success stories.

I’ve also visited the Serious Games institute in Coventry this week. They’re working on simulations and on exploring EEG devices such as the Emotiv and Neurosky headsets which are Brain Computer Interface devices.

I won’t comment on the brain computer interface devices in detail as there is ongoing research by SGI and they’re comparing them to medical rated EEG devices (to give a baseline) and assessing the quality of the interpretation. I expect we’ll all benefit from that research and it will feed into our bio-feedback gaming research work at the OU.

I will say that the research work is fascinating and although the technology is still ‘green’ I think there is great potential. I think in a year or two this will mature into a very useful technology. I see it being most useful in the research arena although I know that Neurosky in particular are looking at the end user and brain control gaming (Star Wars Force Trainer etc. ) – The technology is still either a bit fiddly to use, requiring a lot of set-up and configuration, or a bit simplistic. I also think that the software could be improved. My concern with it is that I actually like using an artifact ‘controller’ to game and I can’t see that training myself so that when I blink I throw a grenade, or when I think ‘push’ I throw a rock is actually any more stimulating in the long run than doing it through a controller. Especially controllers with sound, rumble effect etc.

The SGI visit was cool and the stuff they’re doing on helping with real world situations through games based simulation of crowd behaviour is going to really have high impact once they perfect the rules and programs.

The rise of 3D gaming is also interesting to observe and is ramping up thanks to Sony and Microsoft  and others. I’ve blogged about it previously but this year it’s predicted to become more mainstream.

Augmented reality gaming is also coming to the fore with various augmented reality apps for the iPhone either out now or on the way. For example Sky Seige – Still rough but likely to get better throughout the year.

Then there are the new genre of games like Heavy Rain that are set to blur the boundaries, mixing storyline and games that are very much player driven in a way that the story depends on the actions to provide a really immersive and deeper experience (theoretically).

So it looks like we’re getting to a stage where there are lots of good things coming but perhaps within this scattergun of gaming diversity we’ll find several really big successes.

Convergence v Specialism

I’m very interested in the trend with devices such as XBox 360 towards a convergence of media types and delivery with it’s support of Sky TV through the XBox and broadband via Sky Player – Stephen Nuttall from Sky was quoted as saying: ‘Our partnership with Xbox is a further example of our commitment to put choice and control in the hands of customers.’

I’m particularly interested in the ‘blurring’ or perhaps integration is a better word between the different media types so the idea of interactivity around watching a football match whilst downloading stats and also interacting with other fans is cool, also concepts around adding value to experiences through ‘back channel’ activities is something becoming more prevalent, as is the concept of ‘on demand’ services.

I think the really interesting stuff will be when the boundaries between an interactive TV experience, a gaming experience or an internet experience all disappear to the extent that they become platform neutral and coherent rather than bolt on things. The announcement of the Boxee box earlier this month is a step in the right direction, this really is opening up the rich resources and putting power int he hands of the users. It also means that you no longer need to get content ‘produced’ on a TV channel in order to get your content to a large audience, consumers become producers.

I’m very interested in using gaming technology and interactive TV in more powerful ways to develop engagement and learning, supported with internet they become extremely powerful tools.

Bio Feedback Technology

We’ve just purchased a set of Bio feedback technology that has been used by other research to look specifically at emotional responses to gaming. The product is ProComp Biograph Infniti and we’ve bought it with a number of different sensors to pick up things such as  Surface Electromyography, Skin Conductivity and EKG heart rate monitoring.

This rich data can be provided alongside other types of data and we’re therefore going to use it with our purpose built Research Labs along with eye tracking technology and other video data that we capture during our testing work. This should allow us to get a much more detailed picture of the level of engagement and immersion within game play and indeed other forms of online interaction such as within virtual worlds and other online web environments. I’m really looking forward to trying it out. We’ve got plans to also extend this work beyond the labs themselves so we can look at monitoring people in their own social contexts and seeing if this makes a difference.

We are also considering developing a joint research bid with the Speckled Computing people again extending the work we do in the labs out into the real world and looking at how to use the ‘intant feedback’ that this technology provides to assist people in both how they work and in their personal and social lives. I’m very excited about the possibilities that these technologies provide.  

Some quick example or two to explain what I mean.

1. We can use Bio feedback to assist people in dealing with stressful situations and conflict. We can use VR or video simulations to mock up events and work through issues with individuals in a ‘controlled’ way, for example training social workers.

2. We can use Bio feedback and speckled computing at assist with rehabilitation, and with improving balance in people who have mobility issues, for example those who have had hip replacement surgery to learn to walk correctly again and improve freedom of movement.

3. We can assist with pandemic outbreaks by sending ‘specks’ to affected people to gauge whether or not they have the illness and to monitor their recovery. This avoids having to involve expensive health care practitioners and it also allows us to accurately measure the spread of a pandemic.

There are many more, Sports Science, Gaming etc.. the possibilities are many and varied and the opportunity for using this technology to benefit our society is very much within our grasp.

Truely Immersive Gaming

We recently purchased Nvidia GeForce 3D Vision Stereoscopic Glasses to try them out for gaming to see if they offer a more truly immersive experience. They do, they are mind blowingly good!

I had almost given up hope because I’ve tried out the 3D glasses from two other providers (mentioning no names but I was expecting a lot and was hugely disappointed) and a set of gaming vests and found these to be annoying and actually get in the way of the gaming experience rather than promoting a more immersive experience.

Back to the Nvidia glasses. I can’t say enough about them. Here they are below (look quite cool and they are not not heavy or awkward to wear).

glasses

We used them with the 120Hz Samsung display and I tried out two games, the latest versions of Call of Duty and Burnout. Both were staggeringly good. The moment I went into CoD I felt like I was walking through the grass, seeing my team move past me and seeing people running at or away from me. I felt like I was moving in team formation. I was ducking to avoid obstacles and wincing as the bullets ripped past me. I’m not a first person shoot-em-up gamer but I thought that this experience could turn me into one it was completely mesmerizing and I had to wrench myself out.

I then tried out Burnout. Again fantastically realistic driving experience. In particular when going under low footbridges I (and others who tried it) couldn’t help ducking! – It’s great, the experience is enhanced for playing too because you get a more accurate measure of speed and distance of oncoming traffic through it which allows better reaction (at least we thought so). The downside for me if there was one was that after 45 minutes on it my brain felt a bit groggy and my eyes a bit tired, this may just be an acclimitization thing because I experienced much the same thing when I first played Super Mario Galaxy because I couldn’t get used to the ‘upside down’ worlds playing experience. I got over that after a couple of sessions though and I think it’s the same with this technology.

In conclusion this represents a huge leap forward in providing a more immersive and realistic experience for gamers. It’s relatively low cost now at £300 and likely to come down in price. I’ve have heard that Sony are going to put this technology (or similar) into the new Bravia’s and I’m just finally pleased to have tried a piece of gaming technology that lives up to the hype.

See you in VR land…

Picking Pears in LilyPad

Happy St Paddys Day!

Last week I managed to go through the gateway and enter LilyPad and stole some pears which I’ve brought back to Dog Town and planted to become pear tress, they sell for 500 bells each which is five times what my native peaches sell for.

Animal Crossing Gang

Animal Crossing Gang

What gibberish you say! – I’ve managed to get online and share stuff with a colleague (James) and his family through Wii speakand Animal Crossing. It was really the kids that did the stealing of fruit from the other village though so I can’t take the credit and it’s probably setting some kind of poor example but it was all done with the villagers permission and they did show us around the village and we met some odd characters. Great fun. The synchronisation is not perfect and sometimes the ‘host’ characters would appear to vanish then reappear, because they were moving much faster than the connection could cope with, but generally it was good enough to make a usable part of the game. The audio was fine quality but with about a 2 second delay I would guess (Two second going out and back so probably about a second end to end). In any case fairly good for audio conferencing given the amount of bandwidth the gaming aspect was taking up.

What else did I do this past week. Well I’ve got an HTC S740 smartphone which I’m trailling. It’s going to be configured to work with the R2 service ( from microsoft technet) – It allows the phone to pick up wifi networks inside campus buildings and auto route my internal phone extension to my mobile. I’m excited to try this out.

I’ve been asked to help develop a course using Nintendo DS. I’m considering developing a research proposal around this as I’ve got people from Computing department who want to develop apps for their students. I think that the DS is probably the most overtly learning focused console in the types of games it provides so it’s a natural choice and the the homebrew development environment is relative easy to pick up by the looks of it.

Question is does my team explore gaming tech or mobile tech as we’ve also been asked to produce some iPhone Apps. Patrick McAndrew and I have thought of some development ideas around good open viral apps for the platform (more on that soon).

Old School and New School Gaming

Last night I got my Wii USB Ethernet adapter and connected my Wii to the ADSL router and configured the Wii for wired networking and voila! – I’ve found a world of fun exploring all the old school games from the online shoppe! – It’s absolutely superb. I had a real nostalgia rush when I started going through the catalogue. I’ve not got any points yet so I’m off to buy some (don’t have Visa so I’m going to have to go to a real shop to purchase my points) but then expect to not hear from me for a while as I’ve seen some from my distant past. If anyone has played “Secret of Mana” or the original Donkey Kong series, etc.

I’ve got WarioLand the Shake Dimension for the Wii and we’ve got Animal Crossing which the family are still aaddicted to. I can’t even get a look in! – The WarioLand game is OK and is reminiscent of older Mario fares but not quite as enjoyable, not sure why but I suspect it’s because of the ‘value’ of the prizes. i.e. the game has lots of bags of money scattered throughout and you collect it through many different mechanisms (mostly involving shaking the controller violently to get Wario to shake up the bags and spill the coins) but the pursuit of wealth was always secondary to the goal of completing levels and I think it’s too highly valued in WarioLand so I find I have to go back into levels to collect enough coins to get maps to the next worlds which for me is less fun than just tearing through the levels and getting on in the game.

Animal Crossing as I said is much fun, Nikki won the fishing competition last week and the kids are all obsessed by the latest fashions and hairstyles, it’s got a level of ‘stickability’ that I find quite fascinating for a game that doesn’t really go anywhere. Having said that now that I’ve got the network sorted I’m looking forward to exploring other villages and using the Wii speech system (which we’ve got as well with the game) to try some virtual meetings. I want to particularly compare this to more conventional forms of video conferencing and to SecondLife and I’d be interested in hearing what other people think about it as a form of social interaction online. I’ll let you know how I get on.