Toying with my emotions

Kids these days…oy. Back in my day we used to have toys. Star Wars toys, LEGO toys, Ninja Turtles toys, dolls. Wait, did I say dolls? I meant G.I. Joes! Kids these days have… well, they have videogames. Star Wars videogames, LEGO videogames, Ninja Turtles videogames. Something’s changed, but at the same time, something hasn’t…
Paul Reiche, a long-time videogame designer, has been tasked with remaking a classic game from the original Playstation era, Spyro the Dragon. What sets this game apart from others is the way it integrates special figurines called Skylanders. Sold in meatspace toy stores, the Skylanders figurines interface with a podium peripheral that comes with the Skylanders videogame. Depending on the figure being used, different actions or skills are made available to the player, therefore granting access to new in-game content. Reiche’s motivation is that kids are getting away from the use of toys as in the days of yore. He knows that videogames are taking the place that had previously been held by Monopoly and Operation, but he feels there is a way to integrate videogames and toys of the more traditional sense.
Since the rise of videogames, they have progressively been assuming the role previously held by toys. The Sims is like a dollhouse. Wrestling games replace action figures of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Ultimate Warrior. Baseball video games replace trading cards. LEGO Universe, a free-to-play videogame based off of its namesake property built a name for itself starting in 2010. Based on the same basic principles of construction and morally simplistic combat, Minecraft, released later that same year, quickly became the favorite, reaching four million copies sold as of earlier this week, twice that of LEGO Universe. All this while Minecraft is still in beta. For those of you not so tech savvy, that means the game has yet to officially launch–an almost unheard-of feat. LEGO Universe is now scheduled to close its servers early in 2012. Just as videogames had been doing to established toy properties for decades, Minecraft bullied LEGO out of the multiplayer gaming space. It’s hard to blame Minecraft alone for this, but it’s plain to see that the two games occupy an overwhelmingly similar niche.
As time and technology progress, it’s no surprise that videogames have started phasing out more traditional toys. It’s refreshing to my inner child to see developers integrating conventional play with contemporary play. Minecraft shows that the videogame market is a very different world than what traditional toy companies are used to playing in. The question is: will the Skylanders toys be able to mount a formal invasion from the virtual into the physical?

Playing head games

Controlling objects with one’s mind is a common theme in science-fiction lore. Luke Skywalker stands on one hand while moving rocks around, Neo stops bullets mid-flight and Charlie (played by Drew Barrymore) displays pyrokinesis in Firestarter. It has always been the dreams of Star Wars geeks and fantasy dorks world-wide, but it has never been an attainable goal…until recently.
In 2008, OCZ Technology, a computer hardware developer came out with a product named the NIA (Neural Impulse Actuator). It was advertised as a device to reduce the reaction time between thought in one’s brain and action on screen in-game. As it turned out, the NIA did not actually use brainwaves to accomplish this. A series of sensors on a headband read minute muscle movements in the head. It was an admirable try, but it did not quite live up to expectations. Mind Flex Duel, a game from Mattel, worked on the same principle. The problem, up to this point, has always been the step of translating what the electrical signals from the brain mean, as illustrated in the picture below:
This image was taken from a demonstration performed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (the Oxford of the Ivy League) by Gerwin Schalk, a researcher from the Wadsworth Center. It is meant to be a representation of the amount of information processed by the brain in a short time (through numerous relatively simple processes), and the amount of information processed by a computer, in roughly the same amount of time (though with fewer active processes). The thin bar at the bottom represents the information allowed by standard human-machine interfaces (controllers, for example). The researchers at the Wadsworth Center have taken patients with preexisting electrodes in their brains (due to necessary medical procedures) and used the neurological data they gathered to sift through some of the complexities of brain noise. Then, they created a system for interpreting thoughts as basic video game inputs. If you have the time, you should watch the video (I would skip to the 10minute mark). It is a long, but VERY informative video about a branch of scientific research that will only become more significant in the coming years.
In this (much shorter) clip from a study done at Berkeley, a brain’s interpretation of scenes are shown alongside the video being viewed by the patient. By using MRI machines while the subjects watched videos, the researchers created a database of what visual information looks like as it is being processed by the brain. Using that code, they then showed the subjects new information and decoded their brain information into data.
These two studies, while ground-breaking, have a long way to go until they are applicable to everyday life. This might take some excitement and amazement away from the Kinect, but I would rather not have pins and needles stuck in my brain, just so I can shoot a zombie that is trying to eat my gray matter. Anyone disagree? I didn’t think so.