Customizing and Improving the Immersiveness of Existing Technology

GRAND NCE, or Graphics, Animation and New Media/Design, is a mostly academic network of technology, computing, gaming, design and social studies experts who seek to promote excellence and collaboration amongst diverging disciplines and research projects. In a nutshell, they’re a group of people researching in different fields related to technology and trying to work together to form well-rounded and unique research about the way we currently relate to technology, the ways in which it can be improved and the forms it will likely take in the future.

This year, 34 groups from across Canada met up to discuss their research, with many fellow researchers meeting in person for the very first time despite months of working on projects together from a distance. Here are some of the highlights from the stock-full two-and-a-half day conference.


During Friday’s Track 1 network meetings, the BELIEVE team presented their work focused on making secondary gaming characters more believable and involved in the game’s immersive environment.

They discussed platform-agnostic programming meant to script certain behaviours for secondary characters in order to avoid the awkwardness of characters standing around stiffly until beckoned by the game’s main player. They also presented the results of their research on how players interpreted different character traits and body language such as gait, posture and facial expressions. Despite minimal discrepancies between neutral and happy gaits, the subjects showed considerable accuracy in identifying different signals and changes.

Next up in that same network meeting: serious games. Here, the DIGLT (see here for all acronyms) work group introduced a platform allowing for the incredibly realistic simulation of performing knee replacement surgery. Residents and students could henceforth practice every step of the relatively straight-forward procedure at their own pace and however many times they felt necessary before taking the leap into an actual surgery room.

The same principles were applied in the HLTHSM’s group creation of a virtual world simulation program built for emergency room nursing students. Their platform allowed for players to ask the virtual patient precise questions about his or her symptoms,; it enabled the taking of many of the patient’s vital signs and then streamlined the diagnosis and treatment process for a number of ailments and issues.

Once again, the focus of their work was on creating increasingly realistic interactions and universes in which the players could evolve and learn. But how could a game designer or programmer truly gauge the level of interaction and engagement players were experiencing while using different platforms? Data. Which led us to one of the most heated and deeply philosophical panels of the conference.

In the game design super battle, attendees engaged in a passionate debate about the role of analytics and data metrics in the design and alteration of big box, indie and social games. Caryl Shaw, executive producer at Callaway Digital Arts and Clint Hocking, creative director at LucasArts headed up against one another in what turned out to be a not-so-polarized battle between intuition vs analytics-based game design.

The debate centered around different kinds of game testing, various ways of evaluating gamer engagement and loyalty, a myriad of ways of accumulating gaming data and of putting the data to use and then turned to broaching the role ‘suits’, revenue and business all played in the design and customization of social and regular games.

Though the first steps of the debate ended in general consensus on the importance of finding a happy medium between data use and organic game design, things took an interesting turn once the floor was opened up to attendee questions. Conversations then turned to the ethics of data hunting, the changing and ever-expanding structure of the gaming industry, the little space left to experimentation and failure in certain larger big box gaming companies and the cultural role games now could or should take on. Though all thoughts expressed would be difficult to sum up, needless to say, discussions took an interesting turn.

Throughout all the content and debate, GRAND-goers got to enjoy creative and ingenious “2-Minute-Madness” presentations featuring research teams using everything from quirky videos, to funny customized songs and modified acapella harmonies to “99-botles of beer on the wall” to suit their needs. Some were forcefully kicked off the stage by blaring 80’s music as they rushed to fit in their complex content while others imaginatively got straight to the point and left the stage with time to spare.

Their projects were also summarized (to the best of their ability) on simple posters in an adjoining room. GRAND’s opening evening featured researchers explaining their work and engaging in stimulating conversation as attendees browsed the room and hopped from one poster to the next.

Vibro-tactile musical chairs, neuro-feedback sensors, chunks of fur programmed to purr responsively to human touch and tablets featuring stunning music-responsive visual designs and immersive narrative landscapes (where you could explore a story’s universe in any which way or order you wished) all made an appearance as presenters tackled sustainable architecture, pain management, affective evaluation, news and information curation and high-speed gaming coordination – to name just a few.

The conference came to a close with a final keynote presentation by NYU’s Ken Perlin. He did his best to present attendees with 50 Java apps in 45 minutes and was encouraged to go overtime as he impressed and delighted listeners with often funny designs using relatively simple programming to do everything from graphically mapping out the Pride and Prejudice plot to turning a simple 3D triangle into an endearing character through customized gait and movement. His final presentation was a great reminder that the future, which we’d all been witnessing over the last few days- didn’t have to be all that scary, complex or intimidating. We’ll be keeping an eye on many of these projects and be sure to report back on their impressive and thought-provoking progress.

Either way, expect their work to be hitting store shelves within the decade.