Preparing for and attending the 2008 Game Developer Conference appears to have distracted my brother and me from posting here for a week. I guess it is time to get back on the regular posting schedule.
At the GDC, I had the opportunity to try out a gadget created by the NeuroSky company, a head-mounted device designed to read the brainwaves of a person who is playing a videogame, analyze those brainwaves to determine the player's mental state, and relay that information to the game being played. The gadget just needs to be placed on a persons head in order to read brainwaves (nothing difficult or obnoxious for the player) and seems to work quite well. It can't seem to interpret thoughts into direct game commands or anything like that, but it can evaluate the player's mental state and translate that into an effect on the game. The demo at the GDC demonstrated the device's ability to observe the player's attention and meditation levels, and the company representative I spoke to claimed that the system can also observe other things like drowsiness and anxiety levels. This technology is a far cry from the holy grail of being able to play a videogame using nothing but thoughts, but it is still an impressive technology that can be used to make interesting videogames.
However, despite the potential of the system, the demo at the GDC didn't do a very good job of showing how this technology could be used in a game effectively. The demo relied on the gimmick of "moving objects with your mind", even though the technology could not actually translate the desire to move something into actually moving something. Instead, they just had the overall attention levels and meditation levels serve as a "power source" for commands executed through mouse clicks. For me, "using my mind to move and burn objects" was just a process of clicking on an object, and then having my apparently natural high attention level (possible augmented by caffeine from my lunch) trigger the effect with no conscious effort on my part. That was not terribly entertaining. The other activity, lifting things with meditation, was just an exercise in demonstrating that it is not easy to control your mental state on command, and would not make any better a game experience than the other activities. Controlling action with mental state is not a viable way of implementing game controls, because it is far too imprecise and dependent on individual personality, That said, I do still think that this system can be used for games.
Rather than use the implementation seen in the demo, I think it would be much better to use a player's mental state to control the mental state of game characters. This technology can be used to synchronize the way the player reacts to situations in a game and the way the character controlled by the player reacts to those events. If the player pays attention, the character will pay attention. If the player becomes anxious and frightened, the character will become anxious and frightened. There are a number of interesting specific implementations I can imagine for this:
1) Personalizing animations in an MMO. A player can set specific animations to play when his mental state changes. For example, the player might have it so that his character yawns or stretches when the player is drowsy, or jumps up and down when the player is excited. In fact, this cna be extended so that characters can have very different animations based on the mindset of the player, making each character act like the character itself is feeling the emotion and expressing it through natural body language.
2) Implementing some kind of action game mechanic in which the mental state of the player enables different kinds of styles and techniques for the character. If the player is highly focused and paying attention to a single target, then the character can use powerful moves to fight single foes. If the player has achieved some kind of zen-like calm while fighting countless enemies, or perhaps is bored and wants to just get past a part of the game, then the character might reflect that by being able to use moves that defeat large numbers of weak enemies quickly.
3) Altering the atmosphere and mood of a landscape. Make it so the world can reflect the mental state of the person playing the game, If the player is happy, the game world will be bright and colorful. If the player is afraid, the game world will be dark and terrifying. Or perhaps the environment can be made to oppose the mental state of the player, and try to cheer up a depressed player or make a happy player anxious.
There are many possibilities, and I am very curious how this kind of technology will be used by the industry in the future. It might be a while before brainwave-reading technology is packaged in with every game console, but I am sure that some form of this technology will add a lot to videogames in the future.