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.

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.

Just Playing or Profound Research?

I’ve been checking out what those clever bods at MIT’s media lab have been working on. Their latest augmented reality stuff is interesting, there a video of some of their work here .

I’m as interested in the comments made on U.S. Newswire messageboards about this technology as I am in the research itself (to get some idea of how ordinary folk see it being applied). The universal view seems to be that it’s only going to come into it’s own for porn and first person gaming and is otherwise just a gimmick. To contridict this public view I noticed that similar technology is now being used by interior designers in the U.S. to give clients a 3D view of their ‘proposed’ layout which allows them to walkthrough and inspect the fixture and fittings from any angle (like 3D CAD syle but with a real world backdrop). Also I’ve seen that one of the spin-offs of the media lab work is the 3D T.V. stuff coming on stream this year.

What may seem to some like just a bit of fun can have some very useful real world applications. I’m still not convinced that researching the correct sogginess of Rich Tea biscuits dunked in tea is going to have any profound spin-offs but maybe I’ll be proved wrong and perhaps correct sogginess is important to avoid global conflicts or some such. Chaos theory triumphs again! Oh Mandelbrot.

Planning blight and JFDI

I was watching the gadget show the other night with Nikki and they showed a remote controlled Hummer (£37,000 car) that they were able to race around a real dirt course. The research is done by Cranfield and Nikki turned to me and said Cranfield are always doing good stuff like that why don’t you guys do good research. I of course said that we did. She said that what we should be doing for example is making a VR suit for disabled people to interact directly with their brain a nd allow them to explore VR worlds as if they had no disabilities. (read the Otherworld books by Tad Williams for the concept). I said hmm. Yes we could do that. She also said that we should rig up a system to suspend people from so that they could act out the actions conducted in a virtual world and get the total immersion experience (again Otherworld). I said Hmm. Yes we could do that.

I spoke to Patrick about this yesterday. I’m not sure about the whole VR thing but it would be good to do some work exploring hacks we could do with the Wii mote for example, by doing some ‘mashing’ of various technologies. I’ve always been a fan of this type of string and glue approach to developing stuff. He was talking about colleagues that have built the equivalent of Microsoft Surface for under £100 by using a table, projector, tracing paper and a good bit of software. I was saying how of late there is a level of project amanagement to everything we do that makes delivery take long and be less satisfying that the agile approach that we used to adopt (i.e. a clever academci and a clever devloper working together doing seat of the pants iterative prototyping). We are doing that with Social:learn so I’m doing some direct comparison and I can see how much better that approach can be with the right people and a good set of support tools. (we use Skype, Pidgin/Jabber for IM, Twitter and a Wiki to help share development stuff). Patrick said it was time we created the JDFI. “Just F*ing Do it” group. I really think we must escape to bonds of planning blight that can occur during a restructuring process and instead JFDI. That’s my main objective this year.

Gold Farming by Alpha Geeks…

I was reading today about the people who “gold farm” – To those infamiliar with this it’s people who repeatedly collect valuable items in online role-playing games, often (but not always) to sell them on for real world money. People sometimes gold farm as a job. This intreagues me. There are no so many businesses that are spanning the real and virtual, even the mafia are getting in on the act with their presence on Secondlife.

Coming back to gold farming it’s worth seeing Wikipedia article which suggests that over 100,000 Chinese are employed to gold farm and that Korea are looking at bringing in legislation to deal with it. It’s a facinating article and shows the extent of the problem and some fo the methods being employed to deal with it.

Total Immersion?

I’m reading several books at the moment, mostly sci-fi including some classics. It always amazes me how writers try to predict the future and when you reach that future how it varies for their predictions. I’m reading “The Sleeper Awakes” by H.G. Wells, written in 1899 it predicted a future that we would consider with hindsight to be very conservative in terms of technology advancement, however I can see in those days the theories he was suggesting would have sounded utterly fantastic.

Anyhow where does this take me? well I was also reading recently the Otherland series of books by Tad Williams, which explores a world of total VR immersion and where virtual cities and inhabitants live out lives almost completely hooked up. I’m not a fan of his style of writing but the ideas he comes up with are great around the kinds of clustering and methods of interaction and VR indetity and immersion and the blurring of the boundary between virtual and ‘real’. Some of the themes are shared by others and the idea of being in VR of large periods of time and becoming unaware of this are not new…but now reality is getting closer to fantasy and Secondlife is an example where virtual communities, and the virtual world including gangsters et al are also encroaching on real life….the other day I read a story from the BBC which takes this a stage closer..the gaming headset that allows gamers to use thoughts to drive their gaming simulation. So how far are we away from the world described by Tad Williams? – I say about three years. That is assuming that I’m inhabiting reality and this isn’t just a another VR construct….that way madness lies!