I got a kick out of the recent Neuro Gaming 2014 conference in San Francisco because it raised so many familiar sentiments about the dawn of a new era in gaming. Neuro games are something new that can take gaming beyond the traditional violent, controller-driven game and give us wonderful user interfaces, brain-enhancing entertainment, and even fitness-improving applications. These kinds of games sound so great, but they’re being overhyped as well, considering how young the industry is.
The conference is just in its second year, but it drew more than 550 people. The industry has its own prophet and evangelist in Zach Lynch, founder of the conference and the man who wants neuro gaming to become a recognized category that combines games, brain research, sensors, and new kinds of user interfaces for computers and entertainment devices. Neuro games touch our nervous system in some way. The diverse category includes Lumosity’s brain-training games, which have been played by 60 million people; Microsoft’s Kinect body-sensing cameras; Emotiv’s brainwave-monitoring headsets; fitness games like Nintendo’s Wii Fit and Brain Age handheld titles; and even the Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles.
It might be a bit of a reach to say these one-of-a-kind games and technologies are related. But if we accept that they are, then the category is already huge. These neuro games could help gaming reach broader audiences and put the appreciation of gaming on the same level that people have for art forms like books and movies. At the same time, it’s still probably quite likely that an entrepreneur who tries to raise money for a neuro gaming project will get laughed out of the room. I don’t know if neuro games as envisioned will take off, but developments like it are critical for the reinvention of the games business, which has always been evolving.
While the examples of neuro gaming we’ve already seen have had varying degrees of success, they all suffer from the chicken-and-egg problem. The technology has to move forward and make it into the hands of a lot of consumers, but it needs games to make people see the value. But game makers will be reluctant to make neuro games if the technology isn’t there yet or it’s in the hands of too few. Is neuro gaming a gimmick? Is it a fad? Is it more hype than reality? Or is it already a huge business?
Lynch defined neuro gaming in a poetic way in a story for GamesBeat last year. He wrote, “Neuro gaming integrates a broad array of inputs, including player heart rate, brain waves, pupil dilation, hand and body gestures, and changing emotional state to drive rich game play. Neuro game developers use increasingly sophisticated sensory, emotional, cognitive and behavioral technologies to create deeply adaptive and radically compelling gaming experiences. There is real science and the best technology ever produced behind these new capabilities to tie one’s nervous system directly into games. Neuro gaming is ideally suited to take advantage of output technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality and haptic sensation systems to make entirely new gaming experiences possible. Neuro gaming allows game designers to better understand and control the experience of their players, and therefore create games that push the boundaries of reality in ways that haven’t been seen before.”
The challenge of neuro gaming, a number of speakers said, is that you can’t just create a single piece of neuro gaming. You have to build a whole system around it. Neuro gaming is just like its cousin virtual reality. If you build virtual reality goggles, you still need positional sound to make the world more realistic, and you need a new kind of controller to manipulate things in the virtual world. It takes a lot of inventions just to get a new form of neuro gaming off the ground.
Some game industry thinkers are starting to figure out what it will take for neuro gaming to properly emerge. I moderated a panel of neuro gaming investors — Tim Chang of Mayfield Fund, Sana Choudary of YetiZen, Roger Quy of Technology Partners, and Sunny Dhillon of Signia Venture Partners — who are both inspired and cautious about the category. They don’t want to throw cold water on the possibly brilliant researchers who are excited about the category, but they also don’t want to throw too much money at unproven ideas yet.
Chang took a shot at defining the category. He said, “Let’s call it self-development technologies. These are things that improve your life, your aspirational life. It’s started with the quantified self, in fitness and health, but now it’s including nutrition, mindfulness, meditation, relationship skills, all these things. We’re still looking for a term to call this space. I guess the overall thesis goes, ‘Can you use technology to make yourself a better human being, a tech-enabled soul if you will?’ That’s something I’m most excited about. All these sensors, all these technologies, provide feedback channels, and they can prove empirically how things like meditation actually work, without the prior taboo of being sort of hippie-like or spiritual or religious.”
Chang see subcategories such as brain training, brainwave-based control of games, brainwave-based focus and concentration training.
Dhillon noted that the new enthusiasm for neuro gaming could help a lot of those complete systems come into being more quickly. Oculus VR, after all, rode on its popularity with community hobbyists into fast development, venture-financing, and an acquisition on an accelerated timetable. That proved that, given enough fan enthusiasm and consolidation in the right companies, you can overcome the chicken-and-egg problem and use money to build out the parts of the ecosystem that are necessary to complete real systems.
Beyond making money, neuro games could get more broad support because they also help a lot of people. Isabel Granic of the Play Nice Institute in the Netherlands showed Mindlight, a game for kids that requires you to wear a Neurosky brainwave-monitoring headset. It detects how calm the child is. The more calm you are, the more you can shine a flashlight that vanquishes the dark shapes of your nightmares. Granic hopes the game will train children how to conquer their fears. Similar health benefits could help elderly people who need to improve their memory recall, or victims of brain maladies, or wounded veterans. If a game can help people with attention deficit disorder to meditate, it might be more effective than drugs.
It’s not just academics playing in this field. After all, Nintendo turned the category into a huge commercial success in 2005 with its first Brain Age game for the Nintendo DS handheld. Nintendo President Satoru Iwata has signaled that games that improve health and quality of life are the future of Nintendo.
Sony is also showing interest, and it showed up at the conference with a demo of eye-tracking software that showed how to aim automatically with your eyes in its Infamous: Second Son game for the PlayStation 4. Movie makers are also taking interest.
“When we do it well, you feel a sense of presence that you are there,” said Shiraz Akmal, the head of a new gaming entertainment division at DreamWorks Animation, which is building lots of prototypes to figure out the consumer sweet spot for neuro games.
With the movement toward wearable technology, the brain sensors and other devices for monitoring our movements are going to make some huge leaps forward, said Tan Le, founder of Emotiv, one of the brainwave detection headset makers. She is hopeful that brainwave headsets will become more sensitive and work through your hair, rather than require a bunch of electrodes with direct contact with your skin through saline or gel solutions. Nicole Lazzaro of game developer Xeo Design pointed out that the emotional center of the brain is deeper within our skulls, and so it’s harder for surface-sensing technologies to collect data that matters.
Emotiv launched itself into the consumer market a while ago, failed to gain traction, and then retreated into medical devices for hospitals. Now it is ready to take another shot at the consumer market, thanks to $1.6 million in Kickstarter crowdfunding money. Companies like Intel and Qualcomm are dedicating themselves to driving the cost out of wearable sensors. Once they do that, it will be much easier to instrument the world and ourselves, and then create games around the data that comes in from those sensors.
It’s worth a try, said Mike Ambinder, an experimental psychologist at Valve and a speaker at the conference. Game companies are gaining a lot of insights from analytics, where they minutely measure the actions that gamers take inside games. But if you can find out what the gamer is thinking, or what his or her state of mind is, you can anticipate what the gamer will want to do next. And you can keep that gamer satisfied and in a state of flow — before the gamer takes an action like throwing down a controller in frustration.
“Now, how exciting is it that, as a designer, I can put a headset on a person and understand what they’re feeling,” said Robin Hunicke, founder of emotional games startup Funomena and another conference speaker. “We have this extra tool that gives us the ability to build technologies in games that start from the feeling we want to create.”
Ambinder said he isn’t so bullish on brainwave headsets yet. But he thinks that sensors that measure your level of sweat and webcams that decipher your facial expression could be simple ways to make the measurements that Hunicke wants.
With the tools of neuro gaming, you can achieve some goals that game designers have long had, like creating a sense of calm in the gamer, Hunicke said.
Startups are pitching more neuro gaming ideas than ever. Choudary estimated that neuro game startups raised $84 million — not counting the $75 million raised by Oculus VR, which Facebook for $2 billion. Among YetiZen’s accelerator portfolio are Drumleaf, which is promoting multiplayer creativity among kids, and Kyttaro, a mobile gaming company that uses data from smartphone cameras and sensors.
Quy invested in a couple of companies that were aimed at neuromarketing (Emsense), and neurofeedback to improve sleep (Zeo). Both failed, but they were interesting experiments. In brain stimulation, Quy has bet on neurotherapy firms Neuropace and eNeuro.
Quy has a brainwave sensor lab in his home, but he has yet to find some new neuro gaming investments that match his enthusiasm for the category. He is paying particular attention to the healthcare and biotech applications for neuro games.
Dhillon’s firm, meanwhile, invested in Mind Pirate, which has been making games for Google Glass in the new category of “augmented self” and augmented reality. Signia also invested in Kurbo Health, which is seeking to reduce childhood obesity through mobile nutrition and gamification.
Lynch is excited to see neuro gaming companies like Throw Trucks with Your Mind, NeuroMage and Puzzlebox.
Perhaps the greatest success is Lumosity, which as mentioned has 60 million users and is advertising on television to get more people to play its brain-training puzzle teasers.
“To me, they’ve proven the power of freemium subscription models and how large those can scale,” said Chang, who invested in Lumosity while he was at his previous firm. “That took me down the path of investing in the quantified self and body and brain hacking realms.”
So what will it take for neuro gaming to become more real? We have some believers among the venture capitalists. But if they can find others to co-invest alongside them, that would be a sign of momentum, Quy said. If more companies could gain traction, rather than just one or two lucky companies, that would encourage more investment. If more veteran game makers start listening to the pioneers and jump into neuro gaming, that would lure more talent into the business. When you see the little startups show enough progress to come back and get a second round of funding, that’s encouraging. When you see a neuro gaming company get Food and Drug Administration approval for making a medical device that improves our lives, that would be huge.
And Chang said, “When you talk about the adult target, really you’re talking about anyone who’d buy a self-help book or browse the jogging section in the former Barnes & Nobles and Borders before. That’s everybody.”
All of these things would be great milestones, and neuro gaming has to go down this road. This is the way that new industries take off.