Try It on for Size: Wearable Game Tech, Experience, and Auto-Ethnography

Immersion and interaction with the “game world” makes for a more interesting, engaging experience.  Advances in wearable technology can create new ways for a player to interact with and be acted upon by games, and such tech can help in researching the effectiveness and benefits of gameplay as well as one’s perception of virtual environments.

A girl wearing VR goggles, courtesy of Samuel Geller on Unsplash

Here, I explore interactivity between game technology and human beings, and how that translates into the concept of metagaming.  I explore the question of how malleable the “magic circle” of games is as wearable technology adapted to the reactions of the player to a game and to the actions of the player within the game impact gaming experience.  Using research into currently-developed wearable technology, including emotion-sensing garments, other recent developments in increasing sensing within games, and knowledge about sensing emotions, I imagine new designs for wearable tech and make the case for the incorporation of auto-ethnography as a layer of metagaming built into game experience that the use of wearable tech will bring to a gamer’s experience.  I hope that the information and ideas here will spark thought into gamer experience and larger questions of “reality” and “self.”

Current wearable tech comes in all shapes, sizes, uses, effectiveness, and practicality.

When searching for “wearables” to purchase, the most common kinds available include fitness trackers like FitBit and Garmin-type bracelets that monitor steps taken and heartrate.  The Bellabeat Leaf, which can be worn as a clip, pendant, or a bracelet, serves as a “wellness tracker” that monitors sleep, activity, stress, meditation, and reproductive health with its companion app, utilizing both technology and spirituality with the varied materials used within monitoring capacity. The Zenta is a bracelet wearable that tracks the wearer’s emotions, improving its wearing experience as biometric sensing technology and machine learning algorithms learn about the wearer as time goes on.  The Pokémon Go Plus and Go-Tcha Bracelet alert users of Pokémon Go of game elements nearby while the app runs in the background on one’s mobile device; these wearables have become largely obsolete since the drop in popularity of the game and the app’s update that enables eggs to be hatched on devices without needing the app open.

A noticeable difference between “fashion” wearable tech and wearables specifically for games.  Why don’t we have both? (~ Old El Paso Taco commercial girl)

In 2013, Google Glass came into view, offering wearers connectivity with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, the ability to view communication from one’s smartphone, send text messages and make calls, take images of whatever is in view, and more, all while fitting one’s vision prescription if needed. This wearable received a lot of public backlash due to privacy concerns, and the product flopped massively in the consumer market as a result.  In August of 2018, Wired reported about a new app developed for Glass, made by the Israeli software company Plataine, that adds AI capability to this device. Google Glass would be especially helpful and functional in manufacturing environments with this app, eliminating the need to carry large devices in a potentially-dangerous work zone, as voice and image recognition technology could respond directly to workers.  

I can’t unsee this.  I must admit, though, that Sailor Mercury’s attire is not exactly mainstream.  And neither is the Google Glass.  Meme courtesy of Pinterest.

In the realm of fashion, technology has been used in increasingly practical ways in clothing and devices that connect to other tech or monitor one’s health and wellbeing, as well as increasingly impractical ways in pieces geared more toward artistic expression.  Some fashion wearable tech appears as “regular” clothing but actually includes connectivity to one’s devices, like Levi’s x Jacquard by Google jean jacket for cyclists.  Some wearable tech allows one to feel what others are experiencing, like the Fan Jersey by Wearable Experiments that includes real-time haptic vibrations that would allow the wearer to feel the heartbeat of a favorite football player.

At least you don’t feel the sweat dripping down your back.
…would that be a good addition?

Some wearable tech allows others to see what one is interacting with, like light-up clothing by VFiles x XO that allows a wearer to change surface colors and patterns in response to music via an app, and some allows others to manipulate a garment’s appearance, like the dress worn by Karolina Kurkova at the 2016 Met Gala, designed by IBM’s Watson and fashion design studio Marchesa, which changed color as people tweeted about the dress with the Cognitive Color Tool, a program that uses color psychology to match emotion to hues.  Some wearable tech reacts directly with the wearer and their environment, including garments by Selfridges and THEUNSEEN that are dyed in ink that reacts to environmental changes, responding to the wearer’s circulation as well as contact with heat, light, shade and changes in air pressure.

Really lighting up my world.
This Met Gala gown really lights up the room.
Selfridges and THEUNSEEN dyed fabric – definitely beautiful, questionably practical

Some even reflects the inner feelings and intentions of the wearer, including the Bubelle “Blushing” dress which projects one’s emotions like sadness or arousal – sensed by a bodysuit of sensors – onto layers of fabric, the lie-detecting Holy Dress designed by Melissa Coleman that shocks a wearer using voice stress analysis, and Chromat’s adrenaline dress that triggers carbon fibers in the design to form an imposing shape a la fight-or-flight response.

The Bubelle “Blushing” dress by Phillips and the SKIN probe project.
These news anchors are so amused.  I guess it really isn’t everyday that you see a dress that expands and contracts like a slinky.

Organizations like Wearable Technologies, or WT, which proclaims itself as the “pioneer and world leading innovation and market development platform for technologies worn close to the body, on the body and even in the body,” foster research and development of all kinds of wearable tech, hosting conferences about new developments and helping businesses sell their products.

Wearables should be developed for playing videogames. 

To a certain extent, this has already begun.  Virtual reality headsets – Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift, Oculus Go, and others – transport players into an entirely new world through visual input.  Companion devices like controllers enable the player to interact using “hands” with this new environment.  Haptic vests allow players to feel the impact of bullets, with some even working on full-body responsive suits.

She’s really alone in the room.
This really “packs a punch.”

However, there is not a lot of technology available that monitors the physical and emotional responses of the player to the environment and content in-game.  What if the conceptual and practical qualities of wearable fashion tech were put to use within the game realm?

As I considered already-existing wearable tech and the implications of such technology, I brainstormed various applications within gaming.

In considering how emotions would be sensed using wearable technology, I examined where different points of the body sense things strongly.  There are many different technological, spiritual, scientific, and psychological approaches to emotion sensing, so in order to create wearable game tech that senses emotions, one must consider all of these – particularly depending on the desired use of wearables in games.

Below are my notes as I thought about different ways that wearables could enhance and increase a player’s experiences in gameplay.

I think the non-Terminator choices are the best choices.

Different kinds of possible wearables:

  • react to player choices in game – punishment?
  • react to player physical actions – heavy boots
  • partial cosplay – will game experience be different if a person feels more a part of the game world or more like their avatar/character?
  • monitoring vitals/emotions – heart rate and expressions

By embodying gameplay, we engage more deeply with the game world.

Whenever we play games, we usually think about how the games affect us and how we impact the game world through avatar manipulation, navigating environments, and manipulating the controls in order to be active with in the game world.  With a lot of games, the “magic circle” separates the “game world” and the “real world.”  However, with new advances in technology, people are becoming more immersed within virtual environments to the point where the magic circle is shattered and the game is reality.

Using VR to ease “real” world anxiety.  Wearables have many practical applications that could truly help people.  I know I would be less afraid in a doctor’s office if there was VR involved.  Does that make me childish or escapist?
The UMW Speaking Center’s use of the Oculus Rift for consultations with students with speaking apprehension will allow for appointments within virtual space.
This alternative use of wearable game tech will open up a broader scope of interaction and different speaking experiences at the center.

Image courtesy of Cristina Montemorano.

Even smell and taste are being attempted entrance into virtual reality.  Concerns about the effectiveness of smell in virtual experiences has a historical basis.  Augmenting experiences with smell technology was originally tested in 1959 with AromaRama, where scent was dispensed through a theatre’s air conditioning every 90 seconds correlating to the movie shown onscreen, and Smell-O-Vision, which emitted scent from beneath theater seats.  In 2001, DigiScents released a prototype of the iSmell, a USB device that would plug into a PC and emit one of 128 scents when one visited certain websites. Due to public backlash, it was never mass-produced.  

But…I wanna touch it too…
Life stinks.  Especially when a $20 million project fails.
Scratch-and-sniff experience.  Another way scent has been translated into media.

However, Benjy Li, a researcher with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, and his team are working on a project that increases a player’s “presence” through adding scent and taste to VR experiences. “The thing about VR is its ability to allow the user to feel he/she ‘is there,’ a phenomenon we call ‘presence,'” Li explains. “We see greater influence of VR when users report higher levels of presence.”  When VR experiences are enhanced with scents and tastes, their therapeutic effects have the potential to be multiplied. For example, the smell of gunpowder might be used in treating certain cases of PTSD, or lavender, to create a calming effect; however, precautions must be taken regarding this, due to the potential of causing too great of an impact too quickly.

And no calories.
The possibilities feel magical, wispy but not too far out of reach.  Photo courtesy of rawpixel on Unsplash.

By increasing the amount that we are able to experience any game, the lines between the “real” and the “game” are blurred even further.  Systems like the Oculus Rift make it possible for people to better imagine that they are present within the game space, more effectively manipulate the environment using their hands through different controllers or having a better view by being able to walk in all directions.  Imagine what it would be like to make this deeper experience even more detailed as people are able to taste or smell or actually feel things in the game environment. Haptic technology has been developed for the sense of touch and smellable and tasteable VR are being developed at very early stages.  All these things increase a player’s game immersion, and the more immersive the game is, the less a person feels connected to the “real.”

Who are you in-game?  Photo courtesy of Corentin Marzin on Unsplash

There are many dangers that are associated with this. Will one lose one’s sense of self in a virtual world?  How will people interact in a virtual space that is within a “real” space for long periods of time.  Personally, I know whenever I use a VR headset, I’m always bumping into the walls and hitting my elbow on things even if I have a really large play space.

Whenever I think about the “magic circle” of play, I think of fairy rings.  Be wary of their “fantasy” component – if you enter one, you could be trapped for all eternity.
In considerations of virtual reality, how much do we need to be concerned about becoming trapped within fantastical reality?

When people interact with such a virtual platform, one’s sense of self changes.  One’s ghostly hands seen when using Oculus Rift single-hand controllers move like your own – it feels right with in the “game world,” but you need to consciously think about how your “real world” positioning of your hands around the controllers manipulates your VR hands.

Photo of Palmer Luckey, 22, inventor of the Oculus Rift by TIME magazine’s Gregg Segal.
Oh my gosh he really looks like a Minion. *cough*  GIF courtesy of GIFER.

The worst-case scenario persists in visions of people spending their entire lives in virtual reality, slowly wasting away and forgetting to eat and constantly forgetting they are within a physical environment and a virtual one simultaneously.  Reflections about VR like Ready Player Onetouch on the condition of individuals who live these two coexisting worlds.  The main character obtains a full body haptic suit that is connected to a treadmill. Without this, interactivity with the virtual environment would be lowered AND his physical health would be severely deteriorated – without his movement on the treadmill, his muscles would likely go into atrophy.

Do we really want such immersive tech? When does something become less engaging and more harmful?  “Game System” by The Perry Bible Fellowship

Despite all of the possible dangers of having extremely immersive virtual reality experiences, I find that such experiences are worthwhile, at the veryleast from a research and development standpoint.  We can learn a lot about ourselves by seeing how we react to games and game environments.

Will we lose touch with reality if tech becomes too immersive or novel?  “The Reality of VR” by Julia Lepetit on Dorkly.

Virtual reality creates experiences for individuals who might never have experienced such things otherwise. You can explore new worlds and taste new foods and smell the air from another place. You can go rock climbing without having to actually physically climb, you can go on a long journey without ever having to leave your house, you can see the bottom of the ocean floor or the peaks of the highest mountains without having to physically travel there.  Increased connectivity and experience will increase these things even more.

I propose the increased creation and use of wearable game tech in order to enhance experience and enable an enhanced form of auto-ethnography during gameplay.

Auto-ethnography is a chance for one to examine oneself within the situation.  Wearable tech connects someone more deeply with the new environment and, in monitoring emotional and physical reaction to such an environment through the use of technology, quantitative data will be easier to incorporate within auto ethnography alongside traditionally-included qualitative data like feelings.

By including auto-ethnography into gameplay, a new metagame is created, one where a player can reflect upon different facets of their actions and reactions in order to tell more detailed stories of self and experience.

Wearables can enable deeper interaction and greater disconnection in gaming  simultaneously.  Gamers can feel more in touch with the games they play, but at what cost?  At what benefit?  I believe that all current conceptions of fashion, wearable technology, virtual reality, and auto-ethnography benefit by considering the possibilities and implications of further technological innovation within video games.

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