Heart rate, temperature, respiration, and perspiration: These are our autonomous functions—our core physiological processes—that signal stress or arousal and can betray our otherwise cool exteriors. Stanford researcher Gregory Kovacs is reading these signals through a modified Xbox game controller. By adding a new, sensor-laden back plate, he can measure heart rate, blood flow, rate and depth of breath, and how hard and fast the user shakes the controller.
In response to these measurements, Kovacs has designed a game that can maximize excitement by adding more stimulus (like bad guys or explosions) whenever a gamer’s heart rate drops. Or it could do the reverse, ramping down the zombie factor for someone who wants to take it easy (but insists on playing zombie games to do so).
What’s particularly elegant about Kovacs’s approach is that his sensors are built into the controller that a player's already holding, so the controller takes measurements without the user even knowing it. It’s a far cry from the Doc Brown-worthy brain-reading helmets that the industry has attempted in the past, like the Atari Mindlink—a 1984 headset that claimed to read your mind, but really just read the movements of your eyebrows, making it the equivalent of an eyebrow joystick—or the Emotiv Epoc, a real-deal brainwave-reading headband that seems to be a half-step too dorky and expensive for mainstream appeal.
But as alluring as Kovacs's industrial design may be, it might already be obsolete. The new Xbox One console has a Kinect camera, which can measure your heart rate just by reading the fluctuations in your skin color. On top of that, the Kinect can also recognize if you’re happy or sad, by detecting smiles or frowns. The Kinect heart-rate tool has only been used for Microsoft's exercise software, and no other developers that we know of have promised to adopt the technology into their games.
But that could change. And truth be told, the potential of physiologically responsive software reaches far beyond video games and custom hardware. Every smartphone can already measure your pulse and movements if asked to, while intimate "wearables," like the Jawbone Up or Nike+ Fuelband wristbands, could match your mood to the world of screens around you, from billboards to ATMs. Maybe a Chanel ad can see if you’re aroused and attenuate the breathy voiceover appropriately. Maybe an ATM can see when you’re annoyed and offer live customer assistance.