Famous Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo is so good at what he does, he can score a goal even when he is plunged into darkness. What makes that possible? Advanced calculations by our subconscious that take over when our eyes are closed to let us know where we are in the physical world. Now, MIT is aims to explore this mental math with an app.
Darkball, an iPhone game designed by Che-Wei Wang and MIT Media Lab’s Playful System Group, challenges users to catch a ball in the dark by tapping the screen when they think the invisible ball is passing through the circle. Combining stark colors, simple shapes, and clean typography to good effect, each round starts with a randomly placed line popping up to bisect the screen. You can only see the ball when it first drops, and as it crosses this line. To catch the ball, you need to predict how fast the ball is falling based upon how long it takes to cross the line.
The objective of Darkball is to see how many times you can catch the ball in a row. But the real value is if you give the app the proper permissions, since Darkball will report its findings to MIT Media Lab. The goal? To construct a map of the dark playground in our brains where we keep our sense of spatial awareness, and allow us to exercise it.
“I imagined some kind of exercise would be able to increase the brain’s performance the same way we lift weights to strengthen our muscles,” Wang says. “I started a conversation with the Jazayeri Lab in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, where they run lab experiments to gain insight on human time perception. They’ve been collecting data from a game very much like Darkball in a lab environment. It seemed like a perfect fit to extend their research to the general public and try to collect data from a wider audience.”
Wang himself is no stranger to experimenting with design and technology: as part of the design duo which comprises CW&T, he’s produced such apps as Crowsflight, a map app which gives you a compass-like UI that guides you to your destination, and Tempra, an app which tests your natural sense of time.
Although the data Darkball has gathered so far isn’t strong enough for conclusive findings, Wang tells me that, on average, people catch the ball 4.16 times in a row. The longest streak ever is 33. Even if they are good at the game, most people playing Darkball hit a wall at around 7 catches, and have to practice for a long time to get beyond the hump.
As for what Wang would ideally like everyone to get out of the app: “I’d like to find out how elastic timing is in the brain. How good can you get at Darkball?” Wang says. “If you get really good, does that level of performance atrophy? And if it turns out playing Darkball can help human performance in other areas like sports, that would be a nice bonus.”
Play Darkball enough, and maybe you could become the next Ronaldo. You can download it free from the iTunes App Store here.