Seems like just yesterday video games were making the clumsy transition from bulky joysticks to sleek, wireless controllers. But youth fades, and the time comes to get a haircut, a real job and contribute something to society. Here in the Northwest, several gaming-inspired projects have done just that by advancing videogames from pixelated playthings to purposeful products with the potential to heal, teach and turn a profit.
“We were way ahead of the video game,” says Hunter Hoffman, Ph.D., “with regard to tracking head and hand motion in virtual reality.” Hoffman is director of the Virtual Reality Research Center at the University of Washington; his team was among the first to see the potential of VR (virtual reality) technology outside of gaming. Hoffman’s group has been using motion-tracking sensors (the technology behind Nintendo’s Wii) and video tracking (the driving feature of Microsoft’s Kinect) in his immersive virtual reality projects for nearly two decades.
After developing SpiderWorld, a VR system designed to help arachnophobes overcome their fears, Hoffman collaborated with Dr. David Patterson, a professor of psychology at the UW’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, to develop SnowWorld in 2000—an immersive virtual reality system designed to provide pain relief for burn patients. “The essence of immersive VR is being able to go into the computer-generated world as if it’s a place you’re visiting,” Hoffman says.
Anyone wearing the VR helmet is virtually transported to SnowWorld, with its steep, icy canyon walls, cool tones and host of friendly arctic critters. The game provides a challenging snowball shooting range, with Paul Simon’s “Graceland” cheerily pumping through the headphones. The game works on a principle of distraction. “It really does work,” Patterson says. “It really does pull the patient’s attention away from the pain.” Data collected from both patient surveys and brain scans measuring pain responses illustrates the impressive effect SnowWorld has on pain levels: Using a 1–10 scale, patients generally reported a 30 to 60 percent drop in perceived pain level.
Hoffman’s newest project is a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) therapy tool—now in the early development stage—called IraqWorld, which allows subjects to confront anxiety in a virtual realm. Hoffman sees a lot of potential in immersive VR technology. “It really can help people. We have the basic technology; it’s just a matter of time and money right now.”
Fans of fast-paced, first-person shooter games appreciate how helpful an intelligent heads-up display is in keeping track of stats (data is superimposed transparently onscreen), so it’s not all that surprising to see the concept cross over to an equally complex activity: driving while talking on the phone. A local team of Microsoft researchers is currently investigating the benefits of adding a computerized helper to the conversation.
According to a report published by Microsoft in May, volunteers were placed in a driving simulator and asked conversational but cognitively challenging questions while navigating construction zones, traffic backups and curvy roads. A computerized talking mediation system would then not only alert the driver to upcoming traffic hazards, but actually interrupt the phone call, putting the conversation on hold. Titled “Hang on a Sec! Effects of Proactive Mediation of Phone Conversations While Driving,” the study found that the system effectively reduced the rate of missed turns and virtual accidents. Though some might be averse to a digital backseat driver, the study includes quite a bit of positive volunteer feedback. “Drivers were generally positive about the usefulness of such a system,” states the study. “The prompts to pay attention were surprisingly useful.”
Gaming for Gain
Cofounded in 2009 by Seattle gamers Keith Smith and Jeff Malek, South Lake Union gamification startup BigDoor (bigdoor.com) is a veritable tech-splicing laboratory that produces a profitable hybrid of website and videogame.
Gamification—the concept of incorporating gaming mechanics into websites—is a way to supercharge websites with interactive features. “By adding game mechanics to a website, users will stay longer, come back more often and be rewarded, and ultimately generate more revenue for the site,” says Carrie Peters, BigDoor’s senior director of marketing.
By extracting gaming mechanics—such as collectible player badges, leaderboards, virtual currency and user rewards—and transplanting them into websites, BigDoor offers a new way for companies to profit from Web content through increased traffic and user interaction. One client, Major League Baseball, asked for help increasing traffic to its website (MLB.com) on game days; BigDoor developed a “badging rewards system,” which allows fans to earn and collect unique player badges only available online during live games. “Gaming is a big part of our internal culture here at BigDoor,” Peters says. “One of our employees met his wife through a World of Warcraft guild.”