Notes from the Expo Floor - Home
E3, After the Dust has Settled
JUL 16, 2013 11:01 AM
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Now that the dust has settled on another Electronic Entertainment Expo, it’s interesting to take a look back and see some of the announcements and innovations unveiled at the annual show. This year saw 48 thousand gaming enthusiasts descend onto Los Angeles for E3. Most of the recent pre- and post-expo press has revolved around the next-generation console standoff between the two graphics-intensive juggernauts: Sony and Microsoft. While Microsoft experienced an Internet backlash over its approach to used game sales and an unfortunately timed announcement about an always-on and always-connected camera, the show floor was a different story altogether. I will resist (Okay, I’ll try to resist) some rant-fueled diatribe on the nature of Microsoft’s PR missteps; instead I’ll try to focus on some of the hidden gems of the show.

The big players were all mostly there, with Sony and Microsoft right next to each other, their booths creating a near palpable tension of frenzy-inducing fandom. Throughout the different halls, massive booths and displays vied for the attendees’ attention, creating a cacophony of noises and HD graphics. And lines. Lots and lots of lines.

In typical E3 fashion, people will wait in lines for a sneak peek at a recently announced game, but there were rumblings of less actual game time than in previous years. Whether or not this had to do with timeframes of the builds being presented or the iteration of the next-next-generation consoles, I would only be guessing at this point. For me, it wasn’t about the games with the bloated budgets; it was about the things hiding in the corners, waiting to speak about the future.

Serious Games

Tucked away in the South Hall, I met with the people at Blue Marble Game Company, developers of neuro games. Neurogaming is a subset of serious games (some would argue about the chicken/egg situation inherent in that statement) that utilizes different aspects of interface design and grounding in cognitive sciences to affect gamers (See this article from VentureBeat for an introduction to Neurogaming in general). Blue Marble focused on their cognitive-rehabilitation approach at E3. Basically, they’ve gamified and digitized several aspects of attention- and cognition-rehabilitation programs. With a foundation on the research (as well as over 75 years of clinical expertise among the staff and developers), they’re leveraging the interactivity of video games into creating a more productive environment for cognitive therapists.

Traditionally, when a clinician administers a test (say, for memory), he or she would have to sit down and actually administer the test, using his or her time on the procedures and process of the test. What Blue Marble is doing is freeing up the clinician’s time by allowing them to actually observe the patient taking the test; the computer (or tablet, etc.) does the assessment and administering. This is an important point, in that it can actually allow two methods of data to help craft the rehab program (data from the device and observations from the clinician). And that’s just the digitization of the test. They’re also doing gamification, making games that do the same things as the test, albeit in a much more interesting and entertaining fashion.

I tried out one of their games (used to test simultaneous-attention), and it was fun in its own right. Additionally, they have Treasure of Bell Island, a 30 hour game (which matches the research on how long a cognitive therapy program should take to achieve desired results), filled with both a metagame and various minigames. On the back end, their Deep Ocean outcomes measurement tool aggregates the data, pulling the patient’s information for inclusion in a medical file (privacy and security worries are too much for this piece, and they got beyond the scope of the article). These types of patient interactions are more than likely going to become the norm in the future, and it’s good to see places like Blue Marble on the forefront, using the research as the foundation for game development.

Serious Peripherals

When I was a much much younger human, I was extremely jealous of my cousin, who had a NES Advantage controller. I had a NES Max (both had turbo, but mine was smaller, and his had an arcade joystick, which was pretty awesome). Interfaces have come a long way from that time of innocence, where turbo was about as technical as it got (granted, as far as the consoles are concerned, not much has changed since the classic Nintendo controller: stick and/or pad on the left, buttons on the right). I’m much more interested in a couple of the more unique ways that interfaces could be ready to impact gaming (and other types of electronic interaction): AI-assisted interfaces and alternate input methods.

A4 Tech was there, showing off their Bloody line of mice and mousepads. I’ve messed around with their mice before, and for the average gamer using the same mouse for both work and play, it’s hard to argue with their quality. They were demoing their metal-footed mice (which had a nice weight to them) and their new mouse pad. While I found the mouse pad to be like air (seriously, it was one of the smoothest mouse pads I’ve ever used), the thing that I’m most fascinated with as far as Bloody is concerned is their auto aim-adjustment. For people like me (who gamed a lot more as a youngster, and as such, doesn’t really have any skill anymore), the mouse will work with software to adjust in-game for recoil, strafing, etc. It still hasn’t ever saved my life in an online game, but that’s just because I’m that bad. I can’t help but think that in a few years, this sort of software-augmented approach to interface could increase predictive input (think of predictive text, but with your mouse). This could lead to software-assisted digital art, assistance for robot arms, etc.

Another company open to unique approaches to interfaces is Stinky, makers of the Stinky footboard (I wonder if the fact that I’m talking about two interfaces, one named Bloody and the other Stinky, says something about me or the industry. I’ll save that discussion for my therapist). The Stinky footboard is an interesting peripheral. Meant to shave off a few seconds when competing in an online game, it is a cross-shaped pad that you rest your foot on, and with a quick flick of said foot, you trigger one of four inputs buttons. If you’ve ever tried to play a competitive game online with more than one or two buttons, you know the value of this device.

With that said, I couldn’t help but think, “so what?” I like games as much as the next guy, but I don’t have any sort of skill that would require the use of such a device. That’s the thing, though. It doesn’t necessarily have to be just for gaming; one of the other applications that we talked about at the show were frequent key bindings for designers (or anyone who uses the computer a lot); this could ease the number of Carpal Tunnel sufferers (and believe me: I’ve seen quite a few people in my office alone who have to wear wrist supports). Guitarists could also use something like this for home recording applications. I also see some benefits to something like this for any sort of virtual reality simulations (specifically ones where you are manipulating objects with your fingers, like working with Z Space or one of Christie’s VR Caves), and I’ll admit that I’d like to see if I could adjust to having one of these things with me at work and at home.

Taking Gaming Seriously

Gaming and games culture is growing up; that statement is fairly obvious. Recently , the Nintendo Entertainment System turned 30, a horrifying fact because I remember asking my parents for one at the time (there is a little bit of relief knowing that it took around three more years before it hit the American shelves), and with it, an entire generation of adults who took their first digital steps during the late 70’s and early 80’s are the ones controlling the direction of the industry. Yes, there is a sense of hyper-realistic gore and sensationalism prevalent in the games industry, but I would argue that it speaks more to media in general than it does to video games in particular. Focusing on those stereotypical aspects of gaming is too myopic to see some of the more inspiring and exciting trends in the industry.

Last year, I participated in a fundraiser for Children’s Miracle Network, coordinated by the Extra Life Organization. Basically, gamers agree to play video games for 24 hours straight, and in the process, they get donations and pledges, sponsoring their efforts. I did it on a whim, and within a few weeks, I had inspired and been inspired by others that I’ve known for years. We raised some money, I quickly realized how out-of-shape I was (gaming-wise), and in the end, I had a newfound respect for some of the fringe corners of the gaming world.

I spoke with some of the volunteers with Extra Life, staffing their booth at E3, and it was very heartwarming to see so many people come by, ready to tell their stories about their fundraising campaign from the previous year. Looking at the stats from the past few years’ worth of fund raising, it’s great to see what’s happening with Extra Life:

·         2009: $170,000

·         2010: $450,000

·         2011: $1,100,000

·         2012: $2,3000,000

Right across from their booth, there was NASA. At a gaming convention. During sequestration. (I had recently spoken with a few people who couldn’t attend a board meeting because of their restricted travel statuses, so I was curious to say the least). As it turns out, it made a lot of sense to see them there, and this is why: NASA needs software engineers, and who better to advertise to than gamers? (And to be fair, there was a local Jet Propulsion Lab, so no travel was needed.)

Keith Nicewarner, a robotics engineer with the NASA Ames Research Center, went on record with the PA Report, saying, “Half of our software team is actually from the gaming industry. We want to hire some people from the aerospace business who know a lot about rockets, but then we also want to hire people who don't have any idea about the rocket industry. The reason is because when you get into these software problems, you have people coming at it from different angles if they're from different disciplines. At the end of the day, a lot of the problems are software problems, and you don't need to know rocket science to solve them,” he said. “We already have rocket scientists.”

Indeed they do.

It may seem to some that games and “real” science don’t mix, but that’s not really the case. A recent article on Forbes, sourcing a DFC Intelligence report, stated that the video game industry (valued at around $67 Billion in 2012) could grow to around $82 Billion by 2017. And if you look at examples like dedicated GPUs (integrated into scientific research), alternative inputs (the Wiimote being used for navigating computer simulations and visualizations), and some of the research utilizing Kinect sensors, you start to realize that there is a great symbiosis between gaming and science. I’m not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg, but it’s clear that as gamers demand more sophisticated devices and interfaces, they are developed and repurposed as needed in different fields.

And that’s a good thing.

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