Innovation & Design

Tell Us How You Really Feel


MIT start-up EmSense tracks gamers' real-time emotional responses—useful data for game developers and marketers alike

If advertisers thought that hiring mediums and psychics to figure out what people thought of their ads worked, they would probably do it. It's not surprising that more scientific methods have caught on. While consumer reaction can be gauged through the usual focus groups and surveys, some companies also employ new technologies, like those that test heart rate or track eye movements.

Now, however, there's a company that offers far more empirical data on people's emotional responses to things like games and ads. That company, EmSense, is already helping to make games better by using a technology that gives them tons of bio-feedback on just what players are thinking. It could potentially change the way products are evaluated forever.

We talked with Hans Lee, CTO of EmSense, and discussed the ins and outs of his company's new emotion reading technology.

MIT Startup

EmSense was a start up founded by MIT grads, all of whom had worked on different projects that used technology to sense various emotional responses. At first, the company looked at how its technology could be used to reflect player emotions in MMO avatars to better communicate with other players. While this technology has serious potential for the future, eventually EmSense decided to use this feedback to improve game testing rather than trying to replace a web-cam and keyboard.

"[When we showed off the technology,] we were asked, 'What if you could measure the game while it was being made? What if you can help us make the game better?' We finally listened to that and saw that [our technology] was something that the industry needed," said Lee.

"We have a headset, and if you think of all the various sensors they use in a hospital, it's like that," he described. "However, we do this without lots of wires or gel, and it detects everything. Creators want to know several things about the player, like what you like in the game, if you're pumped up and how you're engaged. So we rate what areas of a game create this response. Because we have this headset and that is mass producible, we can test five days a week. So we have thousands of hours to work with and we can benchmark every event, and ask things like, 'How engaging were tanks in Halo?'

"Basically we give them…the ability to know how their audience will respond [to a game] before it hits the market. So we give them the objective measurement for how they're close to reaching their audience. We really have added a large value for the game, and it gives [the developers] the ability to take more creative risks. They can ask, 'What do we want to create?' and they can go on feedback not just from a subjective, feeling perspective."

No wires or gel needed

The application certainly sounds intriguing, but how exactly does it work? The aforementioned headset, which apparently doesn't get in the way (an important factor when trying to rate responses for something as active and participatory as games), measures things like how players furrow their brow, blush, sweat and more—gaining a fairly complete picture of a player's reactions.

"What are the reasons for how people feel? [If they're playing a game,] let's say their heart rate changed, but that isn't enough by itself, so let's add their breathing, body movement and their brainwaves to see how they are responding to their environment. [Our headset] is non-obtrusive, it's just glasses, and it creates a huge amount of data that reflects how you are responding."

"One of the greatest things about a video game is that it can get you engaged. For great games, they create the same response in everyone. We can take all of people's responses, and use thousands of people as a benchmark, and say what's normal and better than average and give [that knowledge] back to developers. Because we have the second-by-second information, we can draw a curve of the ups and down in the experience. We can help determine the point where the level will climax. [Developers] can draw the line and say where they want the peaks of the game to be and we can help deliver on that and that's what makes [our technology] so successful."

When this technology was first brought to our attention, we couldn't help but think of Bunnyfoot. The British company primarily uses eye tracking to determine effectiveness and emotional engagement with in-game advertisements. According to Lee, though, the technology EmSense uses and the techniques of Bunnyfoot are very, very different.

"People have been doing tests in university labs for years checking to see if someone looks in a particular place and if the heart rate goes up," Lee explained. "What we've done is said, 'To truly understand and help people, you have to give context.' We can give our clients half a million key events and provide actual benchmarks against the competition. We can measure people without crazy wires everywhere, and we can rate what people liked and when. You can see where they looked, but that doesn't rate if people are really engaged. That doesn't necessarily give a natural response."

The consumer applications are endless

Now, it should be noted that EmSense has not yet worked on in-game advertisements. The company has, however, worked on both games (as stated above) and TV commercials. The same techniques that they use for both could easily be applied to in-game advertising, and to great affect we'd assume.

"When you [study] in-game advertising, you look to see if people are engaged. Because we rate to see if people are people engaged in a spot, you can actually see if people are into it, if they've seen the ad and how long they looked at it. Without EEG, it's something you wouldn't be able to do," said Lee. "It's a great new market that's growing. The big issue is you have to make things sell. Clearly, though, that is what is happening right now, with [advertisers investing a lot of money]."

"We do TV commercials as well, so we're heavily into advertising. We can see if people got the joke, how long did it take to get the joke, etc. and that's not something that's been done before. If no one thinks about your brand description, it's not going to sell. We actually measure objectively if people are engaged."

When asked why EmSense wasn't involved in in-game advertisements right now, he responded frankly, "For a high profile TV commercial, generally that's 5-6 million dollars, and that's a lot of money on the line. That's a whole world of difference compared to putting a billboard in a game."

Not Vulcans when it comes to decisions

Emotional connection with a product is a rare and (to those selling the products) a beautiful thing. In fact Steven Spielberg and Bill Clinton have gone on the record as saying that emotions are key for people to engage in products, whether it's a movie, TV show or a speech. It's long been a sort of intangible quality that EmSense is hoping to make quantifiable in their clients' products.

"You look at how people make decisions, whether it's for politics, or movies or, advertising and media, people are not being rational, they're being emotional in their decisions," Lee commented. "[When you decide,] it's the one you 'feel' you should buy. So when you make decisions to buy something or vote, it's based on emotions. Advertising, however, has traditionally been based around rational thought, 'you should by this for X reason,' and they're trying to build an emotional model off of that. You have to make sure it's the right experience."

We talked with Lee about several factors in testing games and how people engage with them. He conveyed how many players actually disengage when using vehicles because the threat of death is gone (he contrasted that to the Halo series, where engagement raises very high because of fear of death in vehicles). Lee also noted that hooking players in the first 45 minutes is key, perhaps especially for 100-hour long RPGs; that "core" and "beginner" gamers are rated separately; and that they use surveys after tests to supplement their EEG findings.

"All the guys here are gamers and we want to help build games," confessed Lee. "That's what's really exciting is asking, 'How do we make better games?' The one big customer we can talk about is THQ, who's been great to work with. This is something that really allows us to engage our audiences. Each of the publishers and developers that we work with are very cool and that's why we came over here. It's awesome to make the vision of a developer come true."

"When customers started doing this, the creative said, 'This allows us to do more.' So this is actually crafting the experience to be better and that's a great feeling," he concluded.


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