Valve Is Considering Eye-Tracking and Sweat For Gaming

The company culture over at Valve is one which fosters innovation and creativity. According to their employee handbook, Valve staff are free to work on whatever interests them, organically forming teams around a particular project or effort. It's a rather unusual way of doing things in the business world - which is ordinarily so rigidly structured - but it most assuredly works: Valve has historically put out some of the best, highest-quality products in gaming, and Steam (their digital distribution platform) is the most widely used digital storefront in gaming.

Recently, Valve's been on a bit of an innovation kick. I'm not just talking about what they've been doing with initiatives such as Steam Greenlight and the Steam Workshop - which, by the way, are both awesome. I'm talking about the research the organization has been doing into unique, innovative, and downright bizarre new methods of play and control. In short, they're looking to change the way we connect with gaming.

One individual within Valve who's been leading the charge to that end is Mike Ambinder, an experimental psychologist. Valve has set him to work trying to figure out a means of making games more immersive, and he's come up with some very, very interesting ideas. Chief among these are eye tracking and, oddly enough, sweat detection.

"One thing we are very interested in is the notion of biofeedback and how it can be applied to game design," said Ambinder, speaking to Escapist Magazine. "There is potential on both sides of the equation, both for using physiological signals to quantify an emotional state while people are playing a game." To that end, Ambinder continued, current gaming hardware falls woefully short.

Ambinder seems to see modern controllers as more of a barricade than a bridge. With current technology, developers have no way of knowing whether or not a player is enjoying a game, nor can they make any guess as to a player's emotional state. With bio-feedback, they could puzzle it out...and design their games to respond to it.

According to Ambinder, Valve has already tried a few experiments with sweat detection using Left 4 Dead. They tracked a number of different players' sweat levels, then proceeded to feed that data into the engine, using it to modify the play experience to match their level of emotion. Sweat, Ambinder says, is an indicator of anxiety - the more you sweat, the higher your level of arousal. This can, in turn, be used to tailor games to your emotional state. Other indicators of mood include heart rate, facial expresions, pupil dilation, body temperature, and even brain waves.

Concerning eye-tracking, aside from the obvious merits (a more complete sense of immersion), Ambinder spoke of how the eye is faster than the finger no matter how quick on the draw you happen to be. Here, Valve has been tinkering as well: "We built a version of Portal 2 controlled via eye motion. It's still experimental, but it worked pretty well, and we were pleased with that." 

Granted, all this tech is highly experimental, and not likely to see the light of day for some time. All the same, it's very, very cool, and could bring gaming to new and incredible heights.


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