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
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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