Eye Tracking and Immersion
Don’t you hate buzz words? You know, those little phrases that people throw out there because a lot of other people seem to be using them as well? Working in marketing I hear these kind of phrases all the time and it gets right on my tits… so it doesn’t help when reading gaming website and developer interviews I always see the same little phrases coming up again and again. One that has been prevalent throughout the second half of this generation is “immersion”. To me immersion is where you are so drawn into a gaming experience that you feel that nothing else around you matters at that time – hopefully you all roughly agree with me on that one.
Now, the Wii came along and got us waggling our arms around and pretending to shoot a bow and arrow in Wii Sports, or swiping a sword in that rubbish Zelda game. Then PlayStation Move came along and tried to do a similar thing but to be used with games with shinier graphics… well, Killzone 3 anyway. And finally we have Kinect; more dancing about like a tit waggling your body around but with this you could also tilt your head slightly to look at a shiny car, or shout at your TV in order to make a squad member move somewhere.
Some would say that throwing you into the game via the means of motion control, any motion control, will make the game more immersive because you feel that you are becoming the main character on the screen. Remembering that the world in which you are trying to become one with needs to be fantastic in order to become immersed it’s interesting that, for me at least, motion controls rip any sense of immersion away from me. Why is that? I will tell you. I am never more conscious of what is going on around me than when I am jumping around the room or swinging a pretend sword, which is quite the polar opposite of what the developers would intend.
I am never more conscious of what is going on around me than when I am jumping around the room or swinging a pretend sword
Right, I’ve rambled on a bit and I need to explain the reason why this subject was in my head. I was at Develop recently, which has its own little expo with stands and people showing off their games and technology and all that jazz . I saw the Special Effect booth and made a beeline for it. For those of you who don’t know, Special Effect is a charity dedicated to helping all young people with disabilities to enjoy computer games. For these children, the majority of computer games are simply too quick or too difficult to play, and the charity can help them and their parents to find out which games they can play, and how to adapt those games that they can’t. One of the pieces of technology that Special Effect uses is a Gaze Computer, where by looking at the screen the tech maps the placement of your eyes to the buttons that would usually be pressed. Pretty amazing stuff.
When you watch someone else trying it out you don’t fully appreciate just how great it actually works. I had always been pretty sceptical about exactly how well it fairs and I was really happy to give it a go myself. I was chatting to Bill Donegan, R&D Coordinator at Special Effect and he sat me down in front of a screen that had DiRT3 set up ready to play. After a quick one minute eye calibration test that involved me following a dot around a screen I was ready to race. Accelerating was handled by looking towards the top of the screen, steering by looking left and right and braking you looked down at the screen slightly, although with DiRT3 you can have the auto braking assist which instantly makes it far more accessible.
For the first thirty seconds I was just weaving my car left and right because I would start turning, try to compensate and end up over steering the other way. All of a sudden though it just clicked and I was staying pretty close to the racing line and very rarely crashing. You can’t look down at your position in the race or your time though, because averting your gaze from exactly where you need to go causes your vehicle to turn sharply in which ever way you have just looked.
What I did notice, and the reason for the babbling about immersion earlier on, is that when I was playing using the eye tracking technology nothing else mattered; I was concentrating on nothing but where my car was going to be heading next. The road ahead was becoming more and more treacherous with sharper turns, and I was trying to figure out how to approach it. I had forgotten really that I was controlling it with my eyes; no I didn’t have a steering wheel in my hands but the thought process I put in when going into a corner is exactly the same as if I was driving in real life. In terms of feeling as if I was within that game world, even if it was only a racing sim, the Gaze computer achieved that more than any other piece of tech on the market.
In it’s current form the Gaze Computer might not really allow you to compete in an online multiplayer environment but that isn’t the point of it at this time – it allows anyone to play a game and it truly is remarkable. It got me thinking though, in a few years time could this tech be improved upon and implemented to be used alongside titles for the masses?
…it allows anyone to play a game and it truly is remarkable.
It certainly would be difficult to implement in FPS’s in their current form because you could look to the side of the screen to aim and end up just spinning around, right round, like a record baby right round… round round. But, if the games were being developed with Gaze tech in mind it could be utterly awesome to just look at the screen to generally glance around, and with the controller (or actually decent motion controls) aim the weapon of choice.
I’m extremely interested to see what you think; do you think eye tracking technology could be part of the near future for video games? I mean, it’s entirely plausible for the next version of Kinect to have something like that built in. What would be the best type of games to include it and how would it be implemented? Lastly, if you are going to any gaming expos and Special Effect are there I urge you to pop over and see their booth to try out the technology for yourself. They do unbelievable work and certainly deserve more exposure. You can find out more about Special Effect here.