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Valve’s next trick: Dynamically changing gameplay, depending on your sweatiness

Autore: ExtremeTech

Plastic instruments have already come and gone. Motion control feels like it never quite fulfilled its potential. The Oculus Rift, though still in development, has serious flaws. The Wii U and its tablet controller haven’t been able to get off the ground. The gaming industry is looking for a new method of immersion, and so far nothing has taken hold. Now, Valve is looking into tracking your sweat with the goal of enhancing your overall gaming experience.

Some rebels in the gaming scene occasionally say that Valve’s true talent doesn’t lie in making video games, but rather, its that the company has an eye for people that are good at it, then hiring them into the fold. The merits of this lengthy, exhaustive discussion aside, one thing is correct: Valve is quite good at hiring talented folk. The company often looks for and finds talent in places other companies don’t; for example, the idea for Portal was originally created by a team of students, rather than seasoned game developers. Perhaps that’s why the company has an experimental psychologist, Mike Ambinder, on board. Rather than use Ambinder to help Valve figure out how to make in-game experiences hold more weight (for example, through narrative or atmosphere), the company has tasked him with figuring out how to measure player feedback in the moment of playing a game so the game can directly respond. Ambinder’s solution was biofeedback.

We’ve briefly heard mention of this before, back when Gabe Newell himself said Valve was looking into experimental control methods for its Steam Box. Ambinder said there is potential to use “physiological signals to quantify an emotional state” when people are interacting with a game. Rather than just measure these signals, though, Ambinder is looking into ways of incorporating them into active gameplay.

Ambinder explains that with modern-day gaming experiences, the only way a developer can measure how a gamer is reacting is by the actions he is taking in a game. However, if there were a way developers could tell how a player was feeling about the actions they are taking, then the game could dynamically react and change the experience for the gamer. For example, if you’re grinding in an MMO to get to the next level, you might be doing it because of the eventual payoff, not because it’s enjoyable. If the game could tell that you’re bored out of your mind, it could theoretically add some kind of new challenge into your session to spice things up.

Rather than measuring something like the expression on a gamer’s face, though, Valve has performed tests that measure the pH level (acidity) of a gamer’s sweat. Aside from being able to tell if your body temperature isn’t sitting at a comfortable level, Valve linked the level of sweat to the level of a gamer’s arousal while playing a game. When the experiment was applied to Left 4 Dead, if the gamer was found to be calm, the game would move on normally. However, if a gamer was found to be sweating more than usual, the system would deem the player to be nervous, and change the game to advance more quickly, giving the gamer less time to react.

Along with sweat-tracking, Valve has been performing experiments with eye-tracking. The test involved a demo of Portal 2 where aiming can be controlled by tracking the eyes of the gamer. Ambinder states that the experiment provided better results once Valve was able to make the demo notice the difference between using your eyes to aim and just looking at the environment.

A semi-infamous piece of Nintendo vaporware also attempted to go the route of biofeedback, the Wii Vitality Sensor. It was a little module that you wear on your finger, connected to the Wiimote, and it would track your pulse. Nintendo apparently didn’t find a worthwhile use for the device, and it was never released.

Perhaps the direction the gaming industry has been moving toward — different types of controllers — hasn’t been the best method of input. Judging by the low availability of games for the Kinect, Move, and the implementation of the waggle-centric Wiimote, having a game dynamically change based on player biofeedback might be the new method of player input the industry has been seeking.

Now read: Dear Valve, what exactly is a Steam Box?

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