Eye tracking

This company coming seemingly out of nowhere with a stand-alone eye-tracking device in a partnership with Steel Series, an eye-tracker-enabled gaming laptop in partnership with MSI, and a growing number software partnerships with companies like Ubisoft and Avalanche might be a new force in gaming, but it’s been studying eyeballs — and tracking them — for a long, long time. When you play Assassin’s Creed: RogueThe Hunter, The Hunter: Primal and many more games to come (they showed me some, but I can’t talk about them), you will experience what data researchers and ability engineers have known for over a decade: Your eyes know what you’re thinking before your hands do.
My time at Tobii is full of interesting experiences, but one thing sticks out — and it happens multiple times — the people here are almost supernaturally aware of what I’m thinking. In multiple interviews, Tobii employees will comment on how I am interacting with them, how I maintain eye contact while they are speaking, to encourage them to continue; how I nod at them to indicate that I am listening; and smile to influence them to expand on what they might be saying. Subtle interview tricks I learned so long ago I’m no longer aware of doing them. But the people I talk to at Tobii are aware. They’re aware and responding. Because they’re watching my eyes. And they’re programming computers to do the exact same thing.

Profile of Swedish company Tobii and their eye-tracking technology.

This bit is interesting, on how eye tracking can remove one step of abstraction from interaction with software interfaces using the typical modern computer hardware.

Bouvin demonstrates by picking up a pencil from the table in front of us. First he looks at the pencil, then he moves his hand to pick it up. In the computing world, we’ve become used to this type of interaction, but everyone who is currently alive who knows how to use a computer has had to train their mind to add a step between what they see and interacting with it.
We’ve had to learn the motor control of seeing, and then moving a cursor with a mouse or a trackpad, and then interacting.
Tobii eye tracking will remove that inter-evolutionary step, making it possible for us to interact with computers in the same way we interact with the world. Look at a thing. Interact with the thing. No cursor required.
“What you get with eye tracking is you can substitute pretty much all of that positioning, all that directional input, because your eyes are there before you touch,” says Bouvin. “You’re looking there. The movement and directional thing becomes unnecessary. Same with a mouse. You’re already there with your eyes. Moving the mouse cursor there is a step you can more or less do without. The only thing that’s left is the actual action.”


Star Wars Battlefront

I haven't played a video game in years. I don't miss it, though some of the virtual reality games I've demoed recently are so immersive that the novelty could lure me back in. Console games, though? That time of my life may have passed for good.

But then I watched this promo video for Star Wars Battlefront with my brother, and, well, my heart started to race. And then at 4:34 of the video, something happens that made me gasp, and a few seconds later my brother and I were screaming like idiots and searching online for the best deal on a Playstation 4.

I'm setting aside a bond now as a reservation for down payment when the virtual reality version of a Star Wars game comes to pass and I don my goggles and hand controllers to march into a lightsaber battle. It may be the most enticing reason for me to maintain some level of flexibility and physical agility as the years go by.

The cryptic, mysterious power of open-ended universes

Ether One is a new video game about a researcher who dives into the brain of a patient suffering from dementia to try to retrieve some memories. The New Yorker has a profile:

If a game is going to be a game, in the sense of a progressive series of challenges leading to a definite end state, it can’t represent dementia or Alzheimer’s with anything other than a self-conscious artifice. We’re used to suspending some disbelief to enjoy shooting games, but it feels like bad faith to say that a disease should be the basis of a similar kind of entertainment. Our desire to entertain ourselves within systems that make triviality and tragedy indistinguishable says more about us than the depicted subjects. If violent war games are driven by delusional power fantasies, then empathy games are driven by a parallel delusion about how caring we are in reality.

“Our aim was to create an empathetic story but it wasn’t necessarily to raise awareness about dementia,” Bottomley said. “Most people know what dementia is—they just find it hard to talk about, especially if someone close to them suffers from it. The main thing we wanted to achieve was to open the conversation about dementia and put you in the shoes of someone suffering with it.” At their core, games are abstract informants against our communal shortcomings, systems that model our frailest qualities in a subconscious effort to dispel them, to imagine a world where they might surpassed.

I purchased the first version of Myst when it released in 1993, and the experience of playing it for the first time is still so vivid I can remember how I felt. Myst was unique in its complete absence of any instructions, rules, or backstory other than some basic notes on how to use your keyboard and mouse to navigate. It capitalized on one of the unique qualities of video games as a medium, the ability to drop you into a world without any information and to force you to decipher the rules of that universe as part of the gameplay.

Even further back than Myst, I remember playing the first Leisure Suit Larry, staying up until the wee hours of the morning trying to figure which commands to type to solve one puzzle and progress to the next level, or screen (an apt metaphor for a teenager's journey of acquiring sexual knowledge, part of the game's humor). After a few hours stuck on one level one night, I finally realized I had to type a command like "read the sign" to find out I was standing at a taxi stand, and that led me to type "call a taxi" which was the key to moving on. Since the interaction text field was open ended, I had no idea what commands would work at any particular screen or location.

Every time I play with one of my nieces or nephews, they inundate me with questions. Children query at a noticeably higher rate than adults, and playing open-ended video games like Myst returns my adult self to that child-like mode of unending exploration. While children can be exhausting, I love watching them try and make sense of the world, like voracious information gatherers trying to understand the rules of the universe they've been dropped into, and I always feel guilt when resorting to the white lies that adults feel justified in using from time to time when speaking to young children (e.g. Santa Claus).

Myst shifted that type of puzzle to a non-verbal level, elevating the sense of mystery to an almost dream-like state where cryptic visual symbols abound. Memento, still my favorite of the Christopher Nolan movies, could very well describe the sensation of playing these types of video games.

Detective stories and movies are a related storytelling form, and the private investigator descending on a town to solve a mystery or crime is one of my favorite character archetypes. I've read the complete Sherlock Holmes over a half dozen times at this point, and I'm a sucker for those British miniseries like Broadchurch that involve some investigator trying to solve a murder in a small town. The best of such mysteries work on two levels: at the literal level, the crime itself must be unpacked, but at a higher level, the crime reflects some rot at the heart of the community or society or country at large, the way Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy protests a variety of ills at the heart of Swedish society and culture.

Recently I learned that Myst and other games are classified as escape games and that some people had brought such games to the real world in the form of one hour experiences called Escape the Room. Many of my friends in San Francisco have already tried the local version, Escape the Mysterious Room, and for my brother Alan's birthday this year I tried Escape the Room NYC. If you're a fan of escape games, I highly recommend organizing a team for a real world Escape the Room event. It only takes an hour, and since the rules are, by definition, limited, the time commitment is minimal.

All of life can feel like one grim escape game, sometimes it's fun to relax with one with no consequences. It's not for nothing that the word “escape” has multiple definitions:

:to get away from a place (such as a prison) where you are being held or kept

:to get away from something that is difficult or unpleasant

A Man Digging

Jon Rafman's short film A Man Digging is a moody journey through the scenes of video game massacres. 

I've often thought it would be amusing to take a security guard from an action movie, one that gets mowed down by the bad guys, and then cast that actor in another movie, a Fruitvale Station-esque retrospective of the day leading up to the actor's death. 

Lobby security guards in action movies are so hapless. The assassins usually just walk up to them, pull a silencer and shoot the guard a few times in the head or chest before they even know what's going on.