Legend of the Greasepole gets the Silverlight 4 + Analytics treatment

Legend of the Greasepole Title Screen

Legend of the Greasepole has been ported to Silverlight 4 and reincarnated on http://greasepole.net.

Greasepole is the long-suffering game about multimedia tribute to the inexplicable Engineering traditions at Queen’s University in Canada. Over 50 students contributed to the project back in the day.

There’s a significant AI component to Greasepole – the autonomous “frosh” characters have models for learning and communicating with one another.

A couple of years ago I ported it from C++ to C# and XNA. I abstracted out a series of services (graphics, sound, input, timer, persistence) so that it might ultimately be ported again to a platform like, say, Silverlight or something. Why? I don’t know, maybe I’m a little obsessed with the illusion of preservation.

The Silverlight 2 version was a bit shaky. Silverlight 4’s hardware acceleration and bitmap caching make it pretty solid. It is also awesome to hear from friends that it apparently works on the Mac.

Analyze These… Shenanigans

I also added a little analytics. Although it should probably be said that the Greasepole event largely defies analysis, the game itself does not, and so this is the first time I can let someone poke their head in and see how the froshies are doing all around the world.

Back in the day, the worldwide best time was in excess of a mere 53 minutes. But I had to learn that by way of Sean Murray (class of ’05; wonder where he is now) sending me a screenshot. Now the interwebs will tell us immediately. (Admittedly, it’s not a fair fight against Sean, because the frosh are now permanently in “keener” mode, and the Options screen has been replaced by a dozen trendy Achievements for you to “unlock”).

So get going stalling those frosh, and my question for you is – what statistics would you like to see?

“Number of pints Al ‘Pop Boy’ Burchell has quaffed?”

“Number of hippos fed”?

“Height of human pyramid vs time”?

I am going to enjoy cooking up visualizations for some of those.

(Coding notes: A few new VS2010 things helped with this update: Web.config transformation (rocks), improvements to Web Publish functionality, XAML designer, Entity Framework experience… and more.)

Play Legend of the Greasepole Online Edition.

Cross-Country Olympic Mind Games

During the Winter Olympics, the lights of the CN Tower are taking part in an interactive art installation that’s controlled by a participant’s brainwaves.

What I like about the CN Tower installation (in addition to the cross-country nature of the biofeedback loop) is how they teach participants to generate the correct brainwave patterns. We faced a similar challenge back at MediaLabEurope.

CN Tower Light Show
CN Tower Light Show

During the 2010 Winter Olympics, the lights of the CN Tower are taking part in an interactive biometric art installation.

From 3,300km away, a participant in Vancouver has their brainwaves monitored as they watch a live video of the Toronto skyline. When they are inattentive, the CN Tower’s lights move at a lethargic pace. But as the participant concentrates, the lights of the CN Tower cycle around with the speed of Christine Nesbitt ’round the speed skating track.

The measurement being used to determine a participant’s attentiveness is their ratio of their alpha waves to beta waves. This very rough estimate of attentiveness is also what we used for an early project in the MindGames group called “BrainChild”, where a participant unlocked a door through sustained concentration.

What I like about the CN Tower installation (in addition to the cross-country nature of the biofeedback loop) was something I read in this Torontoist article. If participants are having trouble “concentrating,” they are encouraged to count the lights in skyscraper windows.

This is a very clever, indirect way to achieve the desired result. When working with “untrained” biofeedback participants, it can be difficult to articulate the subtle changes that they need to make which will lead to a desired signal (in this case, a change in the ratio of alpha to beta waves).

Mind Balance Training

Mind Balance Screenshot
Mind Balance Screenshot

A project we built at MIT MediaLabEurope called Mind Balance faced a similar challenge.

Mind Balance also relied on an electroencephalogram (EEG) metric to create a control mechanism. However, instead of measuring the ratio between alpha and beta waves, we were monitoring the occipital lobes at the back of the head to detect artifacts from the electrical signals produced by the brain’s visual processing.

The subtlety there was that success for a participant required not just having a visual pattern in your field of view, but also attending to that pattern – a “squishy” concept that required training. Some of the “indirect” methods we used to explain a “good stare” included encouraging a participant to “stare right through” a region on the screen.

We used a 45-second acoustic feedback training session to help participants learn this concept assisted by very clear and immediate feedback. It worked with varying degrees of success, but thankfully, enough success in over 95% of cases for a participant to successfully go on to generate a single reliable control axis.

We resurrected Mind Balance for the Microsoft Ireland Visual Studio 2005 launch and it was awesome (and somewhat improbable) that we got it to work in an Irish pub setting. You can read more about Mind Balance here, and check out the shots of our prototype headgear called Cerebus.

(Another MindGames project where indirectly achieving biometric results played a big role was Relax to Win. The techniques players used to achieve relaxation under pressure was an important and fun part of the interaction.)

Jedi Mind Tricks Re-Re-Rediscovered

Ed Lalor wears Cerebus
Mindgames researcher Ed Lalor models Cerebus

Excitement around Brain-Computer Interfaces for commercial and artistic use seems to resurface every few years.

Although the headgear for the Olympic installation looks considerably refined compared to our prototype (pictured here), achieving reliability for novel and useful BCI metrics remains a really tough problem, principally because most people aren’t cool with having someone drill into their head, which is a shame, because the brain’s electrical signals are so much weaker by the time they reach the surface.

Later this year, with the imminent launch of Project Natal, the focus now seems to be on visual and acoustic interfaces.

But during the Olympics, it’s all about the Mind Games. My hat’s off to Interaxon for putting together this engaging cross-country installation.

(More about the Olympic mind-controlled art installation at PopSci, Interaxon, Torontoist)

(More about Mind Balance here with links to pics)

Four Perspectives on Delivering ‘Return on Experience’ Follow-up Notes

And now, as promised, the link-laced follow-up to this week’s “Four Perspectives on delivering ‘Return on Experience.'”

Our UX Gurus on the panel were:

and in addition to their insights on Wednesday night, they’ve kindly helped me compile these links.
(If you want to contact any member of the panel, they’re first-initial last-name at infusion.com, or ping me.)

Introductions

The panel began by reflecting on the masochistic teapot made famous by Donald Norman on the cover of his book The Psychology of Everyday Things, to remind us that in the software industry, what we create for our clients often becomes an everyday thing.

Are we making things that are functional but masochistic like this teapot?

what's "Return on Experience"?

The panel then weighed in on Deborah Adler’s redesign of the Target Rx medicine bottles, which was bravely showcased by Microsoft as a UX case study from another industry during the second day keynote at Mix09.

It was a story arc that highlighted the many elements of ‘return on experience’ – everything from safety and customer satisfaction, through brand awareness and driving revenue.

Co-Exist?

Then we reflected on the co-existence of the Development and Design lifecycles. There were varying opinions on where each person on the panel feels squeezed for time and resources in the cycle.

Ernie’s more thorough PM’s Gantt chart (very much not shown here) was a sobering dose of reality. We considered techniques for determining the point at which the value to the client diminishes when you add more time and resources.

New Tools, New Processes

I did a Sketchflow demo. We created an interactive prototype. It had the “right level of fidelity” and the panel remarked that the “sketchy” look helps manage client expectations.

At a high level – there was love. Sketchflow should change our software development lifecycle.

But some easy things were hard. We integrated sample data (and Susan quite fairly called me on it when I talked about a designer “databinding” to “sample data.”  (If Blend wants databinding to be [the designer’s] job then the designer says “but it’s not my job!”). We looked at editing a data template (for a Listbox full of items) and everyone agreed this experience was currently way too hard without grokking a number of Blend and XAML-specific concepts.

Especially valuable is Sketchflow’s ability to solicit feedback from clients with standalone prototypes. Ernie remarked that it was when he saw Sketchflow run “live” as a  standalone prototype that he saw how valuable it could be. Integrated client feedback was a big win. We also saw how it can generate Word doc summaries, and all eyes lit up.

We remarked on its incredible potential, which it’s not quite living up to just yet. Earlier on in the presentation, we’d hit upon this theme that a good user experience should never make the user “feel stupid” – but for new users Sketchflow can unfortunately make some of its target audience feel stupid.

For a v1, though – wow – we all saw the value, and deeply, desperately want it to be awesome. Ernie said he’d go back to his team the next day and tell them to start using it.

Roles and Expectations

After the break, we talked about roles and expectations. Given the changing tools and processes, we wondered what should be expected of different roles.

We noted how “designer” is a “suitcase word” that carries many different meanings. Susan saw all these “people” in the Venn Diagram and just wanted it to be clear that in real life, it’s often all a single, multi-faceted “person.”

(Design) Surface

Most of the panel are, or have been, involved in Infusion’s Surface projects, so we took a moment to talk about design and user experience as they relate to that platform.

Susan remarked that Surface development demands UX design skills “to the extreme.”

The Surface design challenges include: attracting the attention of casual users, encouraging users to overcome the novelty of simultaneous multi-user interaction, and embracing the lack of an “up” direction. It’s “hyper-real,” and there is a need to consider the affordances of design elements used on this multi-user touch-table application.

What can we learn from games?

We had Dan Wilcox from the games industry, so we also asked him what we can learn from the gaming world if we’re trying to build line-of-business apps instead.

Dan agreed that a significant challenge is showing users what they can interact with, and how. That “affordances” thing again. He talked about how the games industry has improved in its ability to guide people through 3D landscapes, and perhaps similar cues could influence navigation through user interfaces. He gave examples of where games are blurring the boundaries between user interface and game world.

The Future of User Experience

Then we talked about the future, because that’s always fun.

But the twist here was: what kind of UX considerations will come into play as we design for new kinds of interactivity?

We ran out of time because we wanted to run down the street to see the Surface app before Rogers closed, but now you have time to explore, and add your own thoughts below…

Greasepole Achievement List

Congratulations to Sci ’11 for their one-hour, 47-minute conquering of this year’s greasepole!

Can we all just take a moment to reflect on the academic year called “Sci ’11”?  Man, I feel old all of a sudden.

Just for giggles, here’s the current list of achievements for Legend of the Greasepole.  I wonder how the crowd around this year’s greasepole would have done.

Pole in Ten (Years!) – (100) –  Stall the frosh for at least 10 minutes
Show Some Discipline – (10) – Proudly display the Discipline bar on your Engineering jacket.
Desperate Times, Desperate Measures – (10) – Wind up your arm fully, completely before you toss a road apple.
It’s The Jam, It’s All Good For You – (20) – Offer ‘za or a drink to the Engineering Society President.
You’re a Hoser – (20) – Cool down the frosh with water from the firehose.
Golden Soda – (50) – Offer a drink to hard-working Al ‘Pop Boy’ Burchell.
Like Homecoming, But With Lanolin – (50) – Quench the crowd’s thirst ’til they slam their leather jackets.
Dizzying Heights – (50) – Send a frosh flying all the way from tam to pit-water.
Iron Ring Ceremony – (100) – Unleash the power of the mighty Iron Ring.
Double Fisting – (150) – Wear two Iron Rings at the same time!
Exam Avoidance – (50) – Stall the frosh for five minutes without lobbing a physics ‘smart bomb’.
Fully Loaded Fun Fur – (70) – Stuff your pockets with 99 apples, 99 slices of ‘za, or 99 Clark mugs.
Secret Achievement – (??) – Keep stalling the frosh to discover this achievement!
Secret Achievement – (??) – Keep stalling the frosh to discover this achievement!
Secret Achievement – (??) – Keep stalling the frosh to discover this achievement!
Secret Achievement – (??) – Keep stalling the frosh to discover this achievement!