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.

Transformative Technology (T.V. via games console)

T.V. was a bit rubbish the other night despite the many channels we now get through Sky and Virgin cable (lots of channels does not always mean lots better content) so I downloaded BBC’s iPlayer onto the Wii (which is network connected via a USB Ethernet connector to the broadband at home) and we watched some episodes of Silent Witness that I’d missed the previous week.

I was blown away by the simplicity of the installation and use (I know a lot of work has gone into that simplicity) and I was also pleasantly surprised by both the smoothness of the streaming (it only rebuffered once in the whole two hours and very little jerkiness) and the quality of the picture. As a geek and a YouTube advocate of course I’m familiar with this type of interface now as are many people these days.

..so…we have what I believe is something a bit special. A ubiquitous and relatively cheap technology for gaming that already exists in most living rooms which is being used to provide on demand TV content delivery. The XBox 360 has similar simplicity and ease of use for Sky content and my colleague used that last week for TV content, so we now have a number of devices on which on demand TV content can be delivered. The next step of course is to make the experience more fully interactive, knitting together the content and websites and providing content based on feedback and user interaction, also mixing and blending together sophiticated games and TV content seamlesslessly, then of course there is the 3D experience which is due to be big this year.

Coming back to the here and now the main big thing for me is that the BBC is now really mining the area of rich mixed media environments through providing its iPlayer on so many different platforms and devices and through blending different media types and delivery mechanisms to explore new ways to tailor delivery to suit the individual. I think this is putting the BBC in a very strong position and I admire the work they’ve begun to explore this blending of online and broadcast content and tailored delivery.

It shouldn’t all be about consumption though and the idea of people, for example, sharing ratings on programmes, giving recommendations, having back channel chats and peer group discussion around a programme seems like a concept that could be tapped into to provide a more interactive experience for those that want it. I look forward to seeing how this develops.

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.

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.

Old but Gold

I’ve recently plugged back in all my old games consoles from N64, Gamecube and SNES. I’ve revisited many of the old games again and fallen back in love with them.

They have genuinely great gameplay that leaves most new console games offering standing. It’s not just me that thinks this my kids who have never played things like Super Mario All Stars or the original Donkey Kong Country game or Diddy Kong Racing or the original Zelda games have been pestering me to play them and have started saying things like “the Wii is boring” when I suggest they play Wii games instead. I know that you can get some of the old games on the new platforms but the gameplay seems to be better int he original. Possibly because the lack of resource and interface actually forced developers to think creatively. Hmmm.. discuss.

What I did in my holidays (mind control)

I’ve had a break from blogging but no bad thing really as I wanted to get my head around some technology both of the traditional variety and of the IT sort. I’ve been reading the mind control headsets articles with interest. In particular BBC Focus magazine did two articles in the last edition relating to gaming and future tech. One was to do with the Olympics in the future and things like augmented reality, wearable technology to enhance athletes performance, bionics, and simulation. Interestingly the Korean team used simulation gaming combined with sports psychology as a method to train from Archery and similar ‘repetitive’ type sporting activities during the 2008 Olympics earlier this year and this seemed to be proven as a good method of learning to perform better (tuning you brain to practise and achieve results then the body will follow). This is also a method adopted by F1 drivers to practise racing around circuits, they use a PS2 and then learn the right breaking points and entry to corners etc. before actually getting in the car.

I bought myself a compound bow to take up archery again after a long break and I was amazed at how many new gadgets are available to enhance the archer and improve the shot, when I did target archery as a kid it was a much simpler sport in many ways and I think that technology does give an advantage and improve the shot but I had a lesson from the three times world compound bow champion over the summer and he is very much into the psychology of the sport and made us shoot blind (using the ‘afterburn’ image of the target gold to find our shot). This was very interesting and a quick way of training our brains into ‘knowing’ the gold and blocking out all other visual distractions.

So back to mind headsets, two are coming out next year by all accounts, the EPOC which is the gaming one and should be very interesting to try out and there’s another one which is going to be used more for interactive T.V. work, where the headset will pick up moods and adjust the programming to suit you. (I told male friends about this one and they were all concerned that the T.V. would constantly be flicking to the porn channels!). I guess we’ll need to wait and see how good it is at getting moods and also at dealing with situations with multiple users (with different moods!).

Anyhow I’ve been up to checking out several eBook readers (iliad and BeBook) and we have the Sony eBook on order so I’ll blog about them soon…then there’s Spore which has just been released I could say a lot about that but I’ll save it for another blog! – Lots of exciting new stuff coming online now so I’m setting myself up for month of exploration.