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A Letter to the Big “N"
By shandog137
Posted on 09/12/14
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Playing Portal 2 With Your Eyes?

Posted on Friday, March 4 @ 17:04:15 Eastern by


"The cake is a lie. The cake... is a... li... e......"

That's what I think when Valve admits that they are strapping heartrate monitors and brain diodes on their test subjects. But there is a method to the madness, or so they say. Gathering input data of human physiological effects is not just for scientific study, though, but also for actual input in the game. Using your eyes to play Portal 2? More on that later.

Valve utilized multiple methods to gather data, measuring heartrates, electrical resistance on the skin, facial expressions, electrical potentials on the head, eye movements, pupil dilations, and various body language positions. Each method has pros and cons: some are better at measuring arousal, other at valence (positive/negative emotion); some are inexpensive, and some cost thousands upon thousands of dollars in equipment and labor.

Nonetheless, Valve has the money and resources, and has developed three experiments that enhance their games. The first is the AI Director in Left 4 Dead 2 which, all on its own, actually estimates player arousal and spreads out enemies to form a thorough player experience that has peaks and valleys of excitement. By measuring arousal in real time, though, the AI Director does not need to guess. The effect is tremendous, with players saying that their experience was improved as much as 50%.


The second experiment involved Alien Swarm, a Smash TV-like title where players were asked to kill 100 enemies in 4 minutes. It's a fairly easy task that becomes much more difficult when given one constraint: If the player's heartrate rises, the timer ticks down faster. Surely, it's a devious mechanic, by forcing players to remain calm. The problem, however, is that players frequently believe that they are calm when their heart says otherwise - a cause of frustration to say the least. I would recommend Valve to reverse the experiment and force players to keep their heartrate high, perhaps to stay alive like Jason Statham in the movie Crank.

For their last experiment, Valve wondered whether eye-tracking would improve Portal 2. Normally, eye-tracking is used to see what objects players focus on and to understand to ensure that players aren't bored, looking in one spot for too long, or confused, looking at too many places at one time. The twist, this time around, is having players use their eyes to aim the reticle while using the mouse to shoot. Their conclusion is that eyes are not only viable aiming controllers, but are also naturally faster and more precise than controllers can allow. Unfortunately, the eye-tracking technology Valve used costs close to $5,000, far more than most players can afford, and blinking can be a common disruption given how often it happens.

Most of Valve's research and development shenanigans are mostly that, but this is the kind of experimentation that might pave the way for the future. Perhaps in 20 years from now, we won't be able to think of first-person shooters without using your eyes for aiming. I'm not sure how willing parents are with strapping their kids to heartrate monitors and other technological doodads. Or just gamers in general. In any case, this is the forward-thinking that needs to be done in the pursuit of constant innovation in the industry.
Related Games:   Left 4 Dead 2, Portal 2
Tags:   GDC


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