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Stanford engineers' Xbox 360 controller modification measures player engagement

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In collaboration with Texas Instruments, Stanford engineers have modified an Xbox 360 controller to monitor a player's physiological signals to help determine if the player becomes bored.

The prototype controller was based on research conducted at the lab of Gregory Kovacs, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford. The controller measures heart rate, respiration rate, temperature and perspiration which are influenced by the autonomic nervous system, the part of the brain that undergoes changes when excitement, boredom, happiness or sadness is experienced.

"You can see the expression of a person's autonomic nervous system in their heart rate and skin temperature and respiration rate, and by measuring those outputs, we can understand what's happening in the brain almost instantaneously," Corey McCall, a doctoral candidate in Kovacs' lab.

Xbox 360 controller features small metal pads that monitor the user's heart and breath rate, blood flow and inhalation. A light-operated sensor measures heart rate, while accelerometers detect how the user is handling the controller.

The controller is paired with a software program that monitors the intensity of a racing game. The data is collated to provide an overview of a player's mental engagement, which, according to the researchers, can potentially be used to alter the in-game experience for the player.

"If a player wants maximum engagement and excitement, we can measure when they are getting bored and, for example, introduce more zombies into the level," McCall said. "We can also control the game for children. If parents are concerned that their children are getting too wrapped up in the game, we can tone it down or remind them that it's time for a healthy break."