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It feels like the ghosts of high concepts from the ’90s are gaining redemption. Virtual reality, once considered a bad joke, is potentially one launch away from being featured in a consumer product.

You know what else I saw in the ’90s that’s making a reappearance? Eye tracking and mind control. Like virtual reality, these concepts flopped around from one side hall to another at multiple Electronic Entertainment Expos, always failing to deliver on what they promised.

It was during a conversation at the recent Game Developers Conference that eye tracking and mind control came back to haunt me. I was being pitched to check out a demo for Stillalive Studios’ Son of Nor, releasing March 31 on PC. The game supports the Oculus Rift VR headset, the Tobii EyeX Tracker, and the Emotiv EPOC mind-reading device.

Fifteen years ago, this would’ve garnered a not-this-shit-again eye roll. Yet, if virtual reality can mature to its current state, maybe eye tracking and mind control have made strides as well.

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Children of Nor

Son of Nor 002

Above: Let’s tear up the joint.

Image Credit: Stillalive Studios

Son of Nor is a third-person action role-playing game where the main character is a member of a special faction of gifted humans called, well, the Sons of Nor (although girls are invited as well). Members are born with special telekinetic powers, which have been passed down by an ancient goddess named Nor. Some benefits of being a descendent of Nor include manipulating objects with the mind and wielding a combination of elements (fire, wind, and essence).

Having a group of super beings capable of using their minds to roast others can become helpful whenever humanity runs into trouble. It’s funny I brought that up, actually, because guess what? Humanity is in trouble.

An ancient enemy known as the Sarahul (lizardmen), have started wiping out human settlements on an alien planet. It’s up to the Sons of Nor to stop the senseless slaughter with their bag of deadly psychokinetic parlor tricks.

Interactions — including puzzle solving and combat — require manipulating surrounding objects with special powers. For instance, I can pick up a Sarahul from 20 feet away, lock him in a psychic grip, and roast him to death over an open campfire.

I can also manipulate the sands of a beach or desert to act as an elevator, lifting me up to a high platform. If I see a boulder and a campfire, I can psychically snag the rock, light it on fire, and launch a flaming projectile into a group of lizardmen.

Although Son of Nor is one of the first titles to support the Tobii EyeX Tracker and Emotiv EPOC mind reader, the game doesn’t have to use either of these peripherals. My first playthrough of the demo was with just a mouse and keyboard on a standard laptop — mouse to look around, “WASD” keys to walk, right mouse button to do a telekinetic grab, and left mouse to fire off an object.

Son of Nor 007

Above: Flamenado? Why not?

Image Credit: Stillalive Studios

Going off of the default controls, Son of Nor has its moments. The thing is, I sensed the game is supposed to take advantage of the eye tracker and mind control device. After about 15 minutes, I stopped playing the demo and spun my chair around to face the developers and PR reps who had been watching my progress.”This is nice, but where does the eye-tracking come in,” I asked.

Julian Mautner, lead developer on the Son of Nor project, pulled out what looked like a standard motion-sensor bar and placed it between the keyboard and the screen of the laptop. Small red lights began to emanate from the bar as we started calibrating the hardware to scan my eyes.

After being prompted to follow a dot on the screen for a few seconds, the unit claimed to have a lock on where my eyes were looking. Mautner relaunched Son of Nor.

I was still using the mouse and keyboard controls to move the onscreen character around and to activate abilities. My eyes scanned the virtual horizon and located a boulder to the right of the monitor’s frame. I made my eyes lock onto the object, and I right-clicked to activate the telekinetic grab. The boulder flew directly to my character.

I then looked to the far left and clicked the left mouse button, commanding the character to shoot the boulder off. The giant rock flew in the exact direction my eyes were looking with an eerie amount of accuracy.

Son of Nor 004

Above: If I can see you, I can probably hurt you.

Image Credit: Stillalive Studios

I tried to trick the device by cocking my head while staring at a branch off in the distance and activating the psychic grab. It did not fail to recognize and pull the stick toward me.

The only place I experienced a hiccup was when I faced a cluster of objects that were overlapping each other. If I stared at an object peeking behind another, the game or the device would prioritize the object closest to me instead.

Still, aiming with my eyes is a cool gimmick, and when it works, it’s accurate. It took a little bit for my mind to adjust since decades of first-person shooters have honed my motor skills to aim the viewpoint directly at what I want to grab or shoot, but the more I kept reminding myself that I had a set of perfectly good eyes working for me, it became easier to adjust.

After roasting a couple dozen lizardmen over a campfire with my eyes, I felt confident I was ready for the next step. Killing things with my brain.

OK … strap me in!

Son of Nor 006

Above: This is a screenshot from Son of Nor … or a snapshot of what the inside of my mind looks like?

Image Credit: Stillalive Studios

I spun my chair toward Mautner, who carefully handed me some headphones that had sprouted a robotic daddy longlegs with foot pads. This is the Emotiv EPOC device, which would be reading my thoughts and translating them into actions in Son of Nor.

The concept doesn’t seem so unsettling on paper, but when you have the device embracing your skull, you begin to wonder how accurately it can pick up what you’re thinking. Of course, that’s when your brain decides to screw with you and starts conjuring up a lot of not-safe-for-work concepts.

While Mautner performed some last-second diddling with the sensors gripping my dome, he explained that I am the first person outside of the development team to try this out. I suddenly sensed a lot of tension from the other bodies in the room.

This multiplied a problem that I anticipated, yet did not prepare for. I started to worry about if the thing was going to work.

Was I going to totally fuck up and disappoint these people? Was I possibly too stupid to even use the thing? Speaking of, could the thing sense that I thought I was too stupid to use it, right that second?

I quickly cracked a brave smile on my face and tried to make a stupid joke. But both the Emotiv EPOC and I knew that I was being an utter fraud. My mind was in chaos.

Finally, Mautner rebooted Son of Nor and clicked a few option-menu boxes to activate support for the technological brain spider latched to my head.

My character spawned in a special mental-calibration level. The environment was the inside of an intimate rocky ravine, where a blue spirit was standing to one side. These blue ghosts represented points where the device would try to calibrate in-game actions to my brain. The first specter asked me to clear my mind.

That’s a tall order.

Son of Nor 005

Above: Again, Son of Nor or my mind?

Image Credit: Stillalive Studios

I calmed my breathing, closed my eyes, tried to escape my plane of existence, and fell deep into the blackness….

Mautner’s voice smashed through the void, “Umm, we find it best if you keep your eyes open for this part.”

We reset the game and started again. I was reintroduced to the first spirit. OK. So, clear my mind.

Clear my mind…. Clear my mind…. Clear my mind…. Clear my … well … shit. How would I do that? Suddenly, I was thinking of oranges, donuts, my seat, the laptop, my drive into Oakland, the thing on my head reading my thoughts….

“The scan is done,” Mautner informed me. I was in trouble.

I moved my character to the second blue spirit. This one would calibrate my ability to pick up objects with my mind. I suddenly had a brilliant idea. I was going to picture a square.

The calibration began, and I tried to picture the shape of a white square on a black background. I was staring at a screen filled with rocks, planets, and a blue man, though, which was a problem. The calibration completed, but I knew that I fed the device a mental soup consisting of bits of square and blue men. I embarrassingly asked to recalibrate that part again.

The second time around, I tried to picture my character lifting a rock while internally repeating the phrase “pick up the rock.”

Calibration completed again, and I moved my character toward a scene with some boulders. I stared at the rock formation and thought, “Pick up the rock.”

Nothing happened.

“Pick up the rock.”

Nothing.

“Pick up the….”

“This is so cool,” someone blurted out behind me, breaking my concentration.

I took a deep breath and thought, “Pick up the rock.”

Still no response. I suddenly became aware that I was sweating.

“PICK UP THE ROCK.”

Nothing.

“PICK UP THE FUCKING,” suddenly the boulder leapt in front of my character! The room was awestruck. I sighed in relief and wiped my brow.

OK. I had a rock floating in front of me. What was next?

Mautner explained that in order to throw an object, I just needed to move my eyebrows. I could try to calibrate this action to another thought, but the Emotiv EPOC and I both know that I sure as hell was not ready for that.

In the next location, I ran into a Sarahul ambush. The music picked up tempo. I started nervously backing my character away from my attacker. My eyes scrambled around the screen looking for an object to mentally throw at him.

After running in circles for a few seconds, I spotted another boulder in the background. My brain went frantic!

“PICK UP THE ROCK! PICK UP THE ROCK! PICK UP THE ROCK!”

A minute later, I gave up and used the mouse buttons to grab the object and smash it into the lizardman. I felt defeated. Perhaps I truly was too stupid to use the device?

Or perhaps not?

Son of Nor 008

Above: What the hell are you, and can I pick you up?

Image Credit: Stillalive Studios

My character finally reached the end of the level and entered a quiet medieval-style dormitory filled with wooden furniture and clay pots. I glanced at a random chest sitting on the end of a bed and mentally queried, “Pick up the rock?”

The chest immediately snapped to attention in front of my character! I fired the chest into a shelf, which smashed into pieces in a satisfying fashion. I looked at a clay pot and thought, “Pick up the rock.”

Instantly, the clay pot was floating, under my control. I giddily sent my character out of the room, looking for a person to throw this object at. I found a chambermaid minding her own business, lurking around a hallway. My eyebrows hurled the pot into her body. She turned and shouted at me.

My brain went mad with power! My eyes locked onto her.

“Talk shit to me, huh? Pick up the ROCK!”

“You can’t pick people up,” Mautner interjected, almost as if he was also linked to my mind.

After a nervous laugh and one more mental check to make sure he wasn’t lying, I left the poor woman alone and guided my character outside the building, where I discovered a small, quiet courtyard filled with items to grab and villagers to mentally terrify. As I grabbed more objects, I became more confident. I started pushing both the eye tracker and mind control device, snagging objects with my mind while running, jumping, and spinning. I rarely missed picking something up.

Then, two people behind me started talking about how amazing the technology was, and for the duration of their conversation, I couldn’t grab anything. What was being said jammed up my mental ability to properly communicate to the headset.

After about 30 seconds of silence, I was able to get back into the groove.

This is where a major flaw, either in the technology or my brain, became obvious. I couldn’t use the mind control if there were other forms of stimulation going on. If the game stressed me out, upped the tempo or volume of the music, or someone behind me farted, it was over. The mental link would break.

But when it was quiet and I was not under stress, the tech worked well. In one case, too well.

Don’t think of the rock

WWE 2k14 The Rock

Above: Just try not to….

Image Credit: WWE

I eventually hit a point in Son of Nor where I was having a lot of success at manipulating puzzles and fighting very small battles with the power of my mind. Getting it to work this well wasn’t easy or consistent at first, but staying calm and focused was definitely the key.

During the final fourth of the demo, something weird began to happen. While running from one puzzle to another, I would mentally think about what I would have to do next. This always consisted of having to use the pick-up ability in some way. In these moments of planning my next strategy on the move, I would suddenly pick up an object that randomly crossed my line of sight.

I’d be walking through a path thinking about having to pick up some boulders at the next location, and suddenly, a giant tree branch would float in front of my face. I’d toss it away with my eyebrows then laugh it off, and boom, I’d have a boulder floating in front of me.

I eventually hit a point where I had to try and force myself to not think about picking up a rock, but how would I even do that? Just thinking about not thinking about it made me think about it, which resulted in more objects getting picked up on accident. I had trapped myself in my own mental paradox, where I couldn’t stop picking up objects, even though I didn’t want to do that.

I finally peeled the headset off. Physically, I was fine. Mentally, my brain was twisting and turning. It was time to call it quits.

In the future, we’re going to be smarter … or crazier … or both

Son of Nor 003

Above: Really, man? You’re going to attack me right now? I’m not in the state of mind to deal with you right this second.

Image Credit: Stillalive Studios

Son of Nor exists in a tough spot. In order to be consistent when using the eye detection and mind controls, things can’t get too wild and complex on the screen. The project could result in a great first attempt at using this kind of tech. But the gameplay can be bland if you’re just using a mouse and keyboard. I’m curious to see how Stillalive Studios handles that balance in the final release.

As far as eye tracking and mental detection is concerned, they work…. And the experience is very unique. I can see the potential for game designers to use these technologies to screw with their audiences. Especially the mind detection portion. As a player, I had to alter my thought process in ways that, typically, rarely have consequence on the outside world. It isn’t just concentrating on a game in order to figure out its puzzles, then filtering those thoughts into actions through a game pad when the time is right. Those thoughts are being sucked up all at once, as they happen, completely unfiltered. There is a barrier that is present when I can act out those thoughts through my hands, which a mind control device obliterates.

I’m obviously not a neuroscientist, but my imagination is on fire when I think about a generation of children playing games this way. How would those human beings’ brains develop? I’m not so much talking about gaining actual psychic powers, but could these people surpass what today’s human beings are mentally capable of?

Or could they wind up going batshit insane after decades of mentally screaming, “Pick up the rock?”

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