techlife magazine

The Builders Issue

Words: Scott Messenger
Images: Blaise van Malsen

This Web Exclusive was featured in Volume 7, Issue 1 of techlife magazine.

View issue

NAIT students create a mind-controlled video game

This spring, a group of Digital Media and IT students helped build what could be the most brain-draining video game ever to come out of NAIT.

Project Vulcan, a prototype built under the guidance of game design instructor Armand Cadieux and game programming instructor John Winski, is set aboard a space station. The concept alone is a mindbender: you're a robot trying to escape by embodying a series of stronger robots.

The real trip, however, lies in the direction the game pushes the industry. Players don't take over other robots using a handheld controller; they use their thoughts (hence the nod to Star Trek's "Vulcan mind meld"), read by a brain-scanning headset and converted by the students' software into actions onscreen.

The project originated as a look into the potential applications of the headgear - a relatively new, off-the-shelf technology that is seeing increased use in video games, but rarely in the role-playing variety, which includes Project Vulcan. Evidently, Cadieux and Winski take that as an invitation to push the limits.

"How we play games has dramatically changed in the last couple years," says Cadieux. To him, brain sensors are the logical next step following the touch screens, motion sensors and augmented reality that have transformed the industry. "We're teaching students how to build a game but also how to think beyond and bring in all this other hardware."

Somewhat inadvertently, however, Project Vulcan has tapped into another school of thought emerging around video games. "Games can teach us stuff," says Winski. He means more than facts and figures. If actions in a virtual world can affect behaviours in the real one, Project Vulcan could be said to teach focus.

"You've got to concentrate on just one thing," says Winski. In an age in which multi-tasking and the Internet have divided our attentions, "It's tricky."

Cadieux believes the game hints at a kind of rehabilitation, a role NAIT games have already played with patients at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton.

Indeed, a few minutes of play can leave a newbie (or this writer, at least) feeling physically exhausted, as if having exercised a weakened muscle. The impact this gaming development may have on mental health remains to be seen but there's no reason to think it will be insignificant.

"Games push the boundaries so much," says Cadieux.