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Archive for Monday, February 23, 2004

Companies go beyond joystick

Players use their bodies to master new generation of games

February 23, 2004

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— There's not much use for a keyboard or joystick in the video game "The Journey to Wild Divine: The Passage." All the action is controlled, literally, through your fingertips.

You can dump the game pad with Sony Corp.'s EyeToy, too. You'll succeed only by prancing around in front of a video camera.

Increasingly, game makers and researchers are offering alternatives to the joystick with products that listen to your voice, watch your movement and even monitor your pulse.

The hope is these devices, which tout everything from better health to inner peace, will lure people who wouldn't ordinarily consider video games.

"What we're seeing is graphics have gotten better and better in games, but the input hasn't really improved," EyeToy inventor Richard Marks said.

Video game makers have long attempted an alternative spin.

During the 1980s, target practice games like Nintendo's "Duck Hunt" included the "Zapper Light Gun," which had to be aimed at just the right part of the television screen to blast away ducks and clay pigeons.

Later, the Japanese game "Dance Dance Revolution" had breathless dancers spinning, jumping and tapping their feet on a plastic dance mat.

But for the most part, these alternative input devices were just heavily modified keyboards, joysticks or mice, said Kurt Smith, one of the creators of "Wild Divine."

"Wild Divine" and a few others are fundamentally different. There are no keyboards to press or mouse buttons to click.

This computer game, "The Journey to Wild Divine: The Passage," is
played using no keys or joysticks. A player uses three plastic
biofeedback clips called Magic Rings, which monitor the player's
heart rate and perspiration to judge the level of relaxation.

This computer game, "The Journey to Wild Divine: The Passage," is played using no keys or joysticks. A player uses three plastic biofeedback clips called Magic Rings, which monitor the player's heart rate and perspiration to judge the level of relaxation.

With "Wild Divine," players attach three plastic biofeedback clips called Magic Rings to a small device that plugs into the computer's Universal Serial Bus port.

The $160 game, attachments included, monitors a player's heart rate and perspiration. Users who enter the game's decidedly new-age setting must accomplish a series of tasks, such as juggling balls, by trying to relax and thereby lowering their heart rate. Tense up and the balls will drop.

Mastering the game means learning how to control your breathing and to cycle between emotional states of excitement and relaxation.

"We're able to keep a really close eye on what's going on in your body," said Smith, who spent 15 years in the health care industry before forming his company, The Wild Divine Project. "They're pretty flabbergasted that 'Oh my God, I'm really controlling this with my mind.'"

In the upcoming "Lifeline" from Konami of America Inc., players shout commands into a microphone to direct their on-screen persona. Creators say the game will respond to a lexicon of 5,000 words and about 100,000 phrases like "dodge and reload."

Powergrid Fitness, based in Laurel, Md., is taking a heart-friendly approach with its $695 kiloWatt controller. Due in June, the kiloWatt resembles a fitness machine and works with existing video games on the PlayStation 2, Xbox and Windows-based computers.

In a racing game, for example, the harder players push on the kiloWatt's mounted controller, the faster the race car will go.

"Video games are addictive," co-founder Greg Merril said. "To be able to leverage that addiction in a healthy way was a very compelling idea for us."

Smith foresees adapting special software expansion packs for his "Wild Divine" game to manage pain or quit smoking.

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories' Advanced Concepts Group recently began using games to gauge reaction to stress, boredom and other psychological situations.

Sandia officials believe their ongoing analysis will show a correlation between the physical feedback and a person's feelings. However, the $200,000 research project remains preliminary, and they have yet to draw any conclusions.

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