With all the attention we’ve been getting lately, it is probably a good idea to tell a bit more about what it is all about: alphaWoW. AlphaWoW is actually a quite simple demonstration of how brain activity can be used in an existing computer game in such a way that it can really add to the user experience. One of the things that is quite unusual about this demonstration is that the user will still use mouse and keyboard for the standard interaction with the game. Brain-computer interaction (BCI) is used as an additional modality to control very specific actions.
For this demonstration, the user plays a character in the popular game World of Warcraft (WoW). Being a nightelf druid, she can shapeshift into bear form. Where as an elf, she is quite fragile, in bear form she is an enemy to be feared with big claws and teeth, and thick skin. This is not to say that she cannot fight as an elf. Elves can cast powerful spells that can kill an enemy before they can even get within hitting range. But perhaps more importantly: in elf form she can heal herself. So both forms have their own advantages and disadvantages. They each require a different style of play from the user.
Brain activity is measured with electrodes on the outside of the head (EEG) which actually register voltage differences which are the result of activity in different areas of the brain. These measurements are then analyzed for alpha activity, which brain activity in a very specific frequency range. Alpha is said to be related to relaxation. The higher your alpha levels, the more relaxed you are. As we just calculate this feature, no machine learning is necessary, so there are no lengthy training sessions. The user can start to play immediately. Because there are many differences in brain activity between users, and brain activity also changes over time, we applied a normalization function. This means that even if you have a stressful disposition, you will still be able to change into an elf, if you relax relatively to your general state of mind.
In World of Warcraft we show the user the inverse of this alpha as an orange stress bar. When the bar gets high, the player is stressed (low alpha), and their character changes into a bear. When the player relaxes and the stress bar gets below a certain threshold, they change back into their natural elf form.
There are many aspects which make this new way of playing World of Warcraft appealing. First of all the player gets a lot more into character, as this is suddenly required for the interaction. This increases the sense of immersion, which is also increased by the sometimes unconscious reactions like automatically changing into a bear when you are suddenly being attacked. Secondly it is kind of magical to watch the computer react to your brain activity. But there is more. Playing this way will also increase your awareness of your mental state. Increasing alpha has been shown to be related to intelligence and being more stress-resistent. So even though this game might make gamers even more sedentary, it might have some interesting positive side effects as well.
So far alphaWoW has been demonstrated at AISB 2009 (AI&Games track) in Edinburgh, open days at the university in Enschede, and at the ICT Delta conference in Utrecht, where visitors could really try this system in practice.
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