Making My Virtual Dream

[Originally posted at MyVirtualDream.ca]

 Dreamers dreaming

Dreamers dreaming

My Virtual Dream at Scotiabank Nuit Blanche 2013 will take place inside a spectacular 60-ft dome, awash with projected animations, powered directly by the participants’ brainwaves connected to The Virtual Brain.

Starting at 6:52 p.m. on October 5, groups of 20 participants at a time will enter the “Dreamery” – an intimate stage in the centre of the dome. The first half of each session is called “The Wake Cycle,” during which participants will learn to control and synchronize their brain waves by playing a cerebral video game. Using only their own powers of concentration and relaxation, participants will directly control the images and sounds projected on the dome, competing with other players to create spectacular fireworks.

To learn more about the virtual game’s creation, we spoke to Elliot Pinkus, a Game Designer at Uken Games and one of the central designers of the game used in My Virtual Dream.

How would you describe the creative process that went into the game’s production?

The first challenge was the coming up with an overall concept. Working with members of the MVD team and two fellow designers from Uken Games, we started with the goals and constraints. For our goals, we wanted a game that in a quick play session would be visually engaging, easy to learn, and would give the players clear feedback on how the game responded to their brain activity. We went through a series of brainstorms about what would be a good fit and I latched on to the idea of a fireworks show. The colored explosions of fireworks would make for widely appealing visuals. Someone just walking by the exhibit could become intrigued seeing the bright flashes of light.

From that clear and exciting visual concept, I considered our primary constraint: how the player can purposely alter their brain activity. The clearest translation of how we’re measuring brain activity is as two “buttons” the player can press, each tied to different brainwaves: “Concentrate” and “Relax.” My jumping off point was the idea of a player concentrating to build up glowing energy that could then be launched as a firework. That core experience could be easily communicated and visually satisfying. The core game development team (Edith Chow, Julian Spillane, and myself) expanded and polished up the concept into what everyone will see at Scotiabank Nuit Blanche.

How do the games work?

The game is a fireworks display performed by the players using only their minds. The core goal of constructing a firework is in two phases: Gather and Compress. First, players must relax their minds to raise their alpha waves, which gathers the energy that will go into their firework. The goal is to gather as much energy as possible before a timer expires. Next, players concentrate as hard as they can, raising gamma waves, to compress that energy and charge up the firework for its release.

Once the Gather and Compress phases are complete, the player’s firework launches into the air in a bright glowing display that varies based on their performance. The more they have gathered, the larger the firework’s explosion will be. The more they have compressed, the brighter the firework’s particles will be. Five players can play together on one screen, progressing from solo fireworks (where players compete to make the best fireworks) to group fireworks where all the players contribute to a single impressive launch.

Were there any special challenges in creating the games for My Virtual Dream?

The biggest challenge was dealing with such a foreign method of input. It’s easy to instruct a player to press a button, but how do you teach “relax in such a way that your alpha waves pass a threshold?” Everyone’s brain waves are slightly different and what works for one person may not work for others. It’s been interesting to see how players learn to “Concentrate” in just the right way. Some players have success with counting numbers or doing math, while others are more visually-oriented and need to imagine the firework actually compressing. For myself, neither of these methods are successful and instead I need to un-focus visually while letting my mind run free. We went through many subtle iterations of the game to give meaningful feedback and reward success over a very short play session.

Do you see a future role for the game program outside of Nuit Blanche?

There’s absolutely a role for the game beyond Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. There are two areas of the game that we’re learning from: the collected data about brain activity, and experiential feedback about how players interact in this novel way. Expanding the game would give us greater insight of how various people’s brains react to different purposeful input. As always in scientific research, more data leads to better understanding. On the interaction side, there are more and more experimental controllers that rely on only the brain for input. We have already learned from the game’s development process what techniques work and what techniques don’t. As we continue to adapt the game, we will find even better ways to let players consciously control what’s happening on screen. Brain Computer Interface (BCI) technology is poised toadvance usability dramatically in the future.

(Photo at top via https://m2.facebook.com/myvirtualdream2013)