March 6, 2013 1:00 AM | Staff
There have been numerous commercial attempts at "games" that are controlled with biometrics, particularly brain waves. There's Mattel's Mindflex, for example, as well as the Star Wars Force Trainer. They're almost purely novelty items, and don't particularly work that well.
Crooked Tree Studios founder Lat Ware (who's programmed games at studios including Realtime Worlds and Crytpic) wants to add some real competitive gameplay to the novelty of brainwave-controlled applications. He's using Kickstarter to try to fund Throw Trucks with Your Mind, a competitive multiplayer game in which players put on a commercially-available brainwave sensor and essentially focus their thoughts to toss vehicles and pieces of the environment at other players to win. Movement is done via mouse and keyboard but attacks are pure thought.
We caught up with Ware to talk about Throw Trucks and pick his brain about the future of biometrics-controlled games.
How does it work?
The headset is an EEG, which is basically a really sensitive volt-meter. It looks at surface voltages in the brain, which decades of research have mapped to specific thought patterns. NeuroSky's MindWave is processing the data for me to extract how calm and focused you are. I do not know the details of the algorithm that they're using, but it does work.
You don't have to think a specific thought to raise your focus, though it is different for different people. In my case, I stare at the dot in the center of the screen and tune out everything else. Some people focus on a specific word on the screen. Some people listen to a specific sound, like the laptop fan. I have one friend who computes prime numbers in his head. The headset doesn't care what you focus on, only that you are focused. Calm is more subject and interesting.
In my case, I have to believe in myself and if I doubt myself, I can't do it. I have one friend that imagines the effect that he wants and trusts that it will happen, and that raises his calm. Focusing on your breathing helps. Thinking about something that makes you happy helps. People in happy, committed relationships often have their calm jump by 30 percent when they think about their significant other. It's fundamentally about mental relaxation, but what makes you relaxed is a complex beast.
What's the difference between this and other biometrics-controlled games? Why is it more responsive?
The biggest difference between this and other biometric games is that this is a fully fleshed out game. Levitating a ball with your focus is not a game. Unlocking doors with your calm is not a game. Filling up a meter is not a game. Those are elaborate meters. Throw Trucks With Your Mind is an actual game, as competitive as the Modern Warfare games, but with a completely new style of play that uses the features of the headset. I have a general rule about games: If you can't win and you can't lose, it's not a game. There are a couple exceptions, but it has served me well.
Where do you see biometrics-controlled games going in the future?
Well, in the next 15 years, a game like Throw Trucks With Your Mind will come out. If my Kickstarter succeeds, it will happen right now. If that is a success, then we can expect a wave of EEG-based games about 10 years afterwards. That would drive not so much innovation, but a reduction in price. Right now, purely brain-controlled interfaces just aren't there yet. We're getting better, and I feel like we might have a good, affordable brain-controlled interface in 15 years, depending on how much is invested in this technology. That said, I don't see the controller going away from mainstream gaming.
Why Kickstarter? Are venture capitalists unconvinced?
I actually spoke to eight venture capitalists and a number of investors about the game and the feedback I kept getting was to prove user traction, then come back. So, I had a conundrum because I needed user traction to get funding, I needed a product to get user traction, and I need funding to get a product. The minimum viable product doesn't work so well when it requires an $80 piece of hardware. Kickstarter broke me out of that loop.
What happens to the game if the Kickstarter fails?
If Kickstarter fails, I don't know. Maybe the project will be salvageable as I will have shown that I was able to raise $27,000 (at the time of this writing), even though I didn't get it because of Kickstarter's rules. Maybe that would still show solid demand for the product, since it was raised entirely from customers. Maybe that would be enough to convince an incubator or investor to pick me up. I am unsure. I haven't given it any thought, because all of my energy and time has gone to campaigning for the Kickstarter as hard as I possibly can. I haven't given myself any time off.
[Kris Graft wrote this article originally on sister site Gamasutra.]