At E3 in 2009, Nintendo (OTCPK:NTDOY) announced their Vitality Sensor and the video game world yawned. Just recently they have announced that they will be showing games for it at 2010 E3, that the device would be available to buy in Q4 ‘10, and the video game world yawned again. This is a shame because it has massive potential. With the right software support it could be bigger than the balance board.
On the face of it the Vitality Sensor is a very simple device that reads your pulse. It then sends this information, in a continuous stream, to your Wii console. This is called biofeedback. The console knows what effect it is having on you and can adapt what it does accordingly. The potential applications are infinite, limited only by the imagination of the development community. It is possibly the cleverest video game input device ever.
Biofeedback is an area of science of some respectability which is currently going through a boom. The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB) is the main body in the world advancing this science. Their website says:
Biofeedback has evolved from a fascination in the 1960s and 70s to a mainstream methodology today for treating certain medical conditions and improving human performance. This evolution has been driven by years of scientific research demonstrating that the mind and body are connected, and that people can be taught to harness the power of this connection to change physical activity and improve health and function.
If you have any imagination you will be beginning to see the potential now. The Vitality sensor could be used as a pure gaming device, or as a pure health device. Or knowing Nintendo, they will find some amazingly innovative way for it to do both.
Biofeedback in gaming goes back a long way. In about 1973 there was the bio-mechanical Will Ball Games from Charles Wehrenberg, which was about competitive relaxation. In 1984 he implemented it on the Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) 2 computer. He even wrote a novel about it which you can still buy at Amazon. In 2001 a company called Journey to Wild Divine created biofeedback hardware and software for the Apple Mac and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows. They are still at it and make a good starting point for anyone in the game industry trying to get up to speed. They say:
With just a few minutes of practice each day, Wild Divine’s products can transform your computer into a beautiful and engaging experience of relaxation and balance, helping you to increase your energy level, restore balance and improve your ability to connect to the world around you in profound ways.
And Nintendo themselves have previous experience. In 1998 they released the N64 biosensor, which clipped onto the game player’s ear and read their pulse. This was used in a game called Bio Tetris which was a game within Tetris 64, only available in Japan. IGN reviewed an import copy of the game and they had this to say:
When playing in Bio Tetris mode, there are two basic settings for the feedback function. Normal makes the game easier if you get more excited (or nervous), resulting in slower dropping pieces and a more relaxed gamer. Reverse, or maybe they should call it “heart attack” speeds up the pace of the game as your heart accelerates. While this may all sound incredibly exciting, it really isn’t all that great. Truth to be told, the bio sensor is a neat little gimmick for health freaks, but it doesn’t really add much to the whole gameplay experience. It’s a cool extra, but we wouldn’t want to pay extra to get it.
The fundamental of what we are talking about here is how the human animal connects with the electronic gaming machine: The man machine interface. The ultimate aim must be something like Tron, or the Holodeck out of Star Trek. In the meantime the available input and output methods available to us are pretty crude. This is why the gesture interface (also popularized by Nintendo with the Wii) has had such a huge impact on gaming recently. And it is why biofeedback could be of great significance to gaming. Whether it is or not depends solely on the creativity, imagination and vision of those creating the software that uses it.
It is not just the immersiveness of gaming we are talking about here. It is an expansion in the range of possibilities. Video games will be able to do far more things with biofeedback. So it could be a further step on the inevitable road to gaming being the dominant form of popular culture. And because it is Nintendo that is doing it, my expectations are very high.