Developing technology for video games can sometimes lead to ... geriatrics! That's what happened with Montreal's Beam Me Up Labs (BMU).
From its inception, the company has worked to understand and hone the neurological responses of video game enthusiasts when they engage in their favourite hobby. In doing so, it came up with a plethora of measures that were then described in various scientific papers. All that has since snowballed. “The Institut Claude Pompidou [in Nice, France] took an interest and contacted one of our partners, the University of Montreal,” says Yan Cyr, BMU's CEO.
Yan Cyr, Beam Me Up founder and CEO
Apparently, emotions affect our cognitive abilities. While some positive feelings stimulate them, negative effects like boredom, apathy, and frustration can dull them. “For example, everyone knows that a student who sits down to take an exam while highly stressed may retain less of their knowledge,” says Alexie Byrns, a specialist in neuroscience and artificial intelligence at BMU.
The emotions we feel in a place or situation play an important role. While this can be an issue for anyone, it's even more so when the person's mental functions are in decline, as happens in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
BMU has therefore designed virtual- or augmented-reality environments to help them. “We are able to measure user emotions in these virtual spaces,” adds Yan Cyr. Using artificial intelligence, we can customize it in real time to improve the cognitive status of those who are there.”
These “neuroadaptive” environments adapt to the individual by altering various sensory elements like music, lighting, or the presence of animals or other people. “A dog that barks and creates discomfort will stop immediately,” Byrns explains. "You can also adjust the animal's distance. Some people love having the animal close by, while others prefer it to be farther away." The type of animal can also change. At the Pompidou centre in Nice, instead of introducing users to a dog, they opted for ... a foal!
BMU has designed seven different environments: music therapy, orienteering, animal therapy, space (where the individual is weightless), the savannah, aquatic life and a therapeutic train. “For the train, we noticed that people are soothed by watching the landscape go by,” says Cyr. "It maximizes control of the faculties they still have. We can use that opportunity to have a nice conversation with them.”
The environments can also be used for exercises to help maintain cognitive abilities. For example, the orienteering course requires users to find certain objects and figure out where to go. Task difficulty adapts to each person to maximize the activity's impact while not frustrating or discouraging them.
In a strange twist, research breakthroughs are having positive repercussions on BMU's other business lines, including video games. “Gamers also experience confusion and mental fatigue," Cyr explains. "With our adaptive component, we were able to improve learning and automatically adjust difficulties.”
Today, BMU is attempting to develop non-intrusive benchmarks to make rolling out its solutions easier. “EEG [electroencephalogram] helmets are quite expensive,” says Cyr. "We’re trying to consolidate other metrics, such as analyzing emotions in the voice or telemetry, to make what we do more accessible.”
BMU technology has many potential applications, which the company plans to exploit. It’s working to create highly motivating learning curves for students, and helping producers understand their audiences better and optimize their content. “We even have a student who has worked on ways to use our findings to curb disinformation,” Cyr concludes