The Wii Vitality Sensor, originally unveiled in 2009, may have drawn widespread derision and confusion, but there were some potentially interesting applications that remain, to date, unrealized.
Picture a game of Tetris where the speed of the pieces dropping was tied to your heart rate, for example, or a survival horror game where sanity effects were tied to how stressed out and scared your real-life self was feeling. Or even something as simple as changing the aesthetic of a game according to how you're feeling at the time.
Engineers at Stanford University have been picking up where the seemingly abandoned project left off by developing a prototype gaming controller that measures a wealth of biometric information -- heart rate, blood flow, rate of breath, deepness of breath and how much you're moving the controller around -- to establish how "excited" you're feeling at any point during a game. Using this information, the controller can then send feedback to the game software, which can adjust its experience accordingly to either exacerbate or relax the physiological impact on the player.
The controller was built by doctoral candidate Corey McCall, based on research by electrical engineering professor Gregory Kovacs into how physiological signals could be used to determine how a person's bodily systems are functioning at any given moment. Kovacs' research was of particular interest to McCall from the perspective of the autonomic nervous system -- the part of the brain that controls emotions and triggers bodily processes according to those feelings.
The controller itself is a modified Xbox 360 pad with a custom 3D printed back panel fitted with sensors to measure various physiological effects through the skin in a non-invasive manner. A light-operated sensor gives another means of measuring heart rate, and accelerometers fitted into the controller help determine how much the player is wafting it around while playing -- or whether they're trembling with excitement or fear.
"If a player wants maximum engagement and excitement, we can measure when they are getting bored and, for example, introduce more zombies into the level," said McCall, picking possibly the most generic example possible. "We can also control the game for children. If parents are concerned that their children are getting too wrapped up in the game, we can tone it down or remind them that it's time for a healthy break."
The announcement of the new controller comes in the wake of recent research by Oxford Internet Institute research fellow Andrew Przybylski, whose work indicated that angry, aggressive feelings in game-players were not, as many have previously suggested in the past, tied to violent imagery, but rather to frustrating gameplay or lack of mastery.
Przybylski's research observed the behavior of nearly 600 college-aged participants as they played a selection of both violent and non-violent games and, through a number of different experiments, determined that regardless of narrative or imagery, games that were more difficult or "unfair" to players tended to provoke considerably more frustration and aggression than violent imagery.
Combining Przybylski's research with McCall's controller design raises some interesting possibilities -- many games now offer dynamic difficulty settings that adjust themselves according to how well or poorly a player is performing, but using biometric feedback could prove a much more accurate, precise means of determining how to keep a player engaged over time rather than the digital methods currently employed.