Shoot to Thrill

by Ryan McIntyre

Last summer, we invested in a company called EmSense, which has developed a technology to measure an audience’s emotional and cognitive response to a media experience. EmSense does this by capturing real-time biometric data from a large group of test subjects by measuring brainwaves (via dry EEG sensors), heart activity, breathing, blinking, temperature and motion. Our investment in EmSense falls squarely into our Human Computer Interaction (HCI) theme.

As we detailed in our original blog post about this investment, EmSense has a broad array of customers in the advertising, consumer products, retail and video game segments, each of which is using EmSense’s tools to refine and improve the quality and effectiveness of their media, be it a video, radio or print advertisement, product package or video game title.

Last October, Tim Hong, EmSense’s SVP of Product Development and Analytics and one of the company’s co-founders, penned an illuminating article for Game Developer Magazine, entitled Shoot to Thrill, which showcases the power of EmSense’s platform when applied to measuring players’ level of engagement, cognition, adrenaline and emotion in real-time while playing first and third person shooter games on the XBox360 and Playstation 3. EmSense gathered this player data for games like Battlefield 2142, Call of Duty 3, F.E.A.R., Gear of War, Ghost Recon AW 2, Resistance: Fall of Man, Halo 2 and Half-Life 2.

In his article, Tim goes in-depth in describing concrete examples of elements of gameplay that engage (or bore) players and draws five categories of conclusions about what goes into making a great shooter. I won’t list all the examples here, but will mention a few that caught my eye.

1.                    Tutorials must be integrated into combat: simple, non-combat, non-perilous “target practice” is a sure way to bore the player.

2.                    “Cut-scenes” in transitions between levels lead to decreased player engagement, particularly when they are used to inform/instruct a player rather than entertain and further the plot.

3.                    Ultra-powerful weapons lead to a spike in player engagement, but unless there is an increased risk to the player while they are enjoying their fantastic new weapon, they will quickly tire of their new-found destructive power.

One key conclusion that can be drawn across the board, according to Tim’s research, is that games that do not do a good job of varying the intensity and engagement level during the course of a game ultimately lose players, measuring what is essentially player attenuation if intensity never relents or plateaus. Put another way, a roller coaster is fun because of the uphills and the downhills, while a single hill climb or single descent may provide a one-time adrenaline hit, but won’t lead to repeat riders. While many of these conclusions sound obvious or intuitive) to game developers and game players, EmSense provides, for the first time, an ability to document and measure these things empirically. For a more in-depth discussion of each of the examples I provided above as well as several more, dig in to the original article.

When we invest in a company at Foundry Group, one of the things we look for is a differentiated technology with broad applicability, and EmSense certainly fits the bill. As mentioned previously, EmSense’s audience engagement analytics have proven useful in refining and improving the effectiveness of various sorts of media: video games, radio advertisements and television commercials.

For example, EmSense was used to test the effectiveness of political ads during the (seemingly endless) presidential campaign last year, while early in 2008, Coca-Cola used EmSense to winnow down a slate of a dozen candidate Super Bowl ads to the two they ultimately decided to run. More recently, EmSense has been pushing its technology into testing product packaging and retail environments where participants can actually walk around in-store while wearing the EmSense headset . The Company is also exploring the use of their experience testing as applied to motion pictures. Movie trailers, in particular, are an experience ideally suited for EmSense’s analysis, given trailers’ similarity to TV commercials and video-games, both of which EmSense is well-experienced in.

Needless to say, we are looking forward to participating in EmSense’s growth in 2009 and are encouraged by the reception they are seeing across diverse areas of application for their technology. Given the ever-growing costs associated with video game and movie development and the mandate (particularly in the present economy) to improve the efficacy of advertising and product packaging, we think EmSense has a great opportunity to become an important partner in the development, improvement and refinement of a broad spectrum of media.