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Playing games while driving? BrightDriver's challenging proposition Exclusive
Playing games while driving? BrightDriver's challenging proposition
November 22, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

November 22, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

At first blush, playing games while driving sounds like the kind of thing only the accident-prone would love. But apparently, certain types of games -- like trivia -- can increase a driver's focus, reduce the risk of accidents and even help with navigation.

That idea is core to a new iPhone app called BrightDriver, conceived as a platform that will support audio games people can play in the car to keep their attention from lagging during long rides. Interestingly, it uses the iPhone's GPS functionality to keep track of the user's driving using metrics like speed, brake rate and stressful conditions like traffic, and the games modify their pace accordingly.

It's the brainchild of co-founders Jacob Silber and Matt Albrecht, both MIT alums who decided to try a wild idea when they reconnected at a networking event last year. "Jacob pitched me on the idea of creating a game out of your drive," Albrecht tells Gamasutra. "At first, I was like, 'wow. That's dangerous and slightly crazy.'"

But the idea of solving the problem of boring drives -- which aren't just tedious, but can be dangerous when drivers space out or lose their attention -- through interactive entertainment appealed to Albrecht, especially given a number of studies that've been done by MIT, Duke University and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that show interactive entertainment can improve people's behavior behind the wheel.

On his Boston commute Albrecht has seen people eat, read the newspaper and text message in their cars. "Things people do that are dangerous are symptoms of being bored, wanting to be socially connected and wanting to be entertained," he says.

The pair relied on research that suggests there may be a "sweet spot" for engagement whereby drivers are neither overstimulated or bored, and are therefore optimally attentive, to develop BrightDriver's first game, a trivia-based sort of "game show" that recognizes the user's voice.

They prototyped by having friends, family and testers drive with a laptop in the back seat simulating the game, while their experience ws being recorded. "We were looking for those moments of joy, as well as what was distracting to people, confusing, or annoying," Albrecht explains.

There were some interesting findings: More than four options on a multiple-choice questionnaire overwhelms drivers who are listening to the list, which means a trivia app should only offer three choices at a time. And the voice recognition tech struggles to differentiate between the letters B and D, thus options on a quiz need to be delineated with numbers one, two and three.

"Another thing we found is that people hate getting questions wrong -- they don't want to feel stupid," Albrecht explains. "So we've been working on a way to adapt the questions to the level of aptitude... like, the game does something where if you get the first question wrong, it gives you an easier question."

The tech adapts, too, making adjustments to the pace of the quiz if a driver seems to be braking or cornering hard, accelerating quickly or showing other indications of distraction or frustration. It has interesting potential, but Albrecht believes the games have to be good so that people will want to see what the app can do. He's betting people will be nostalgic for the little word games families play to idle away time on long car trips, and might want a modern way to recreate that experience.

Right now, the tech is in prototype and a small team built a game to showcase it. The co-founders took the product to Kickstarter, but funding stalled at about 45 percent of the way through. Now, Albrecht and Silber are looking to learn from that as they prepare to find other funding options.

Albrecht suggests Kickstarter might have been a challenging venue primarily because people are more likely to fund a product than a platform (Ouya being one notable exception). A better strategy might have been to reveal the platform through one very focused game that a wide variety of people would be likely to want.

brightdriver 1.jpg"We've had interest from the guys who created Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- maybe we could have just focused on creating the interactive audio game for Hitchhiker's Guide," Albrecht reflects.

Another thing he learned from falling short on Kickstarter is that having a grounded awareness of the size of one's support network is essential. In hindsight the majority of BrightDriver's supporters were friends, family, alumni group and the like, plus some interest from backers who like to focus on Kickstarter in general.

"But there wasn't really a whole lot of virality outside of our own personal network," Albrecht says, suggesting that projects seeking funding on Kickstarter should "be realistic abut how strong your network is."

Timing is important, too. Launching a campaign alongside a U.S. presidential election might not have been the best decision, and the unforeseen variable of Hurricane Sandy striking simultaneously could have been a devastating distraction of attention for a company based in New England.

But now, the nearly 180 people who backed BrightDriver can be leveraged as evangelists. "I think being kind of a terminal optimist, it's a very good position to go into launching the product on the App Store," says Albrecht.

"We're committed to getting our app out and we're going to be doing that over the next three weeks; we want to get something out before the holidays," he continues. "We're focused on developing a really lightweight holiday trivia app anyone can play on their family road trips... it's really basic, but something we can hang our hat on that would be different, fun to play."

Getting the word out through Kickstarter might not have gotten BrightDriver funded, but it got the word out; Albrecht and his partner have since had interest from game industry people intrigued about developing games for the platform, and potential licensing partners like the Game Show Network.

"There are a lot of possibilities, but we definitely have to get something out and show what we can do first," Albrecht says.

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Maria Jayne
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"But apparently, certain types of games -- like trivia -- can increase a driver's focus, reduce the risk of accidents and even help with navigation."

I'm....skeptical on that. Having a phone conversation while driving will still impede the drivers ability to process information quickly even if it's hands free.

I remember reading an article on the differences between having a conversation with a passenger vs having a conversation on a phone while driving. The difference is that a passenger can see when the driver is under stressful conditions and pause the topic until the condition has been passed, a busy junction for example. Where as the person on the phone has no knowledge of when the drivers attention is better spent on driving and thus can cause a distraction.

The same could be said for a game asking you questions.

Michael Mullins
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Hmm. I'm not familiar with the iphone's accelerometer capabilities, but you could measure driver workload as some function of accelerations (changing lanes/speeding up/slowing down/stopping) vs time. Above a threshold the game slows down the rate of questions asked with filler similar to a passenger's. Just throwing that out there.

I should add that on long-distance driving, this could be a significant safety benefit. There's only so much that passive input can do for you. I recall trying to make a 2-3 hour drive at 2am (please don't do this, the microsleep will kill you) and was constantly cycling between heat/cool and radio on/off. I finally pulled over at a rest stop and got an hour's sleep. Never again.

Ben Lewis-Evans
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@Michael there is always a problem with using performance measures like what you could get from the accelerometer and GPS from a phone for this kind of thing. The problem is that people tend to work to maintain performance, therefore performance can often only begin to noticeably degrade a significant time after workload has already become high. So if you are relying on performance degradation to indicate high workload you are often too late.

Whereas a passenger in a car can (sometimes) predict future workload spikes and stop talking. Therefore not resulting in drops in performance.

The dream of adaptive systems therefore also to proactively detect high workload before they impact on performance (makes sense) which is why many systems are now trying to work in other methods of earlier workload detection (psychophysiological stuff mostly) rather than relying on performance measures which are a last resort.

Michael Mullins
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@Ben. That's interesting. What kind of methods would one use? I have trouble seeing any system outperform a driver saying "Uhh, hang one just a sec".

If what you're describing works well, I could see additions to information management in avionics for high-workload situations (though always downsides in pilot training).

Ben Lewis-Evans
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@ Michael Some of my colleagues have looked at cardiovascular information (popular because as it is relatively easy to collect) and also EEG (not so popular at the moment but technolog is improving. I have also seen projects looking at skin conductance measures. Commercial applications I have seen so far tend to use eye tracking combined with sensors in the car to tell the car about the traffic situation (cameras and radar).

People are also looking at this in aviation yeah. It believe the idea is generally referred to as 'adaptive automation' in the literature. You do always have the problem of technological over-reliance to deal with though (people trusting the system too much) but that is nearly always a problem with any assistant technology.

Francisco Javier Espejo Gargallo
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"But apparently, certain types of games -- like trivia -- can increase a driver's focus, reduce the risk of accidents and even help with navigation."

Yeah, I don't think this is correct neither. A simple conversation it's said to be dangerous, it would be worse playing a game I guess.

Thom Q
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Even talking with a passenger while driving is proven to be dangerous. So playing trivia games while driving should be Totally dangerous.. Not a smart / ethical move by the developers..

Noah Falstein
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I'm disappointed, I do a lot of serious game work, including work on Neuroracer that may in time grow to become a tool to train drivers:

I thought from the title of the article that this game was going to be like that, a game that rewards players for staying present in their actual driving and awards them points not for trivia about something else, but for actually make good decisions and staying alert regarding their current driving task. I think that is a laudable and achievable goal, but I think anything focusing attention on something besides the drive itself is ultimately likely to lower safety.

Ben Lewis-Evans
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At a guess I would say the research they are referring to is related to the relationship between performance and arousal/workload (shown in this figure from de Waard

Basically there is an optimal level of performance that is characterised by not being underloaded (boredom, etc) and not being overloaded (stress, etc). Both underload and overload will start to cause decreases in performance if they continue. This is true and actually the problem of underload is something that is not well addressed in traffic safety work. We as humans are not great at maintaining attention for long periods of time in boring underloading tasks, we just aren't built for it and driving is often such a task.

HOWEVER, I am doubtful about the approach detailed in this article in terms of addressing this problem of underload. This is because underload tends to develop slowly, is more predictable, more chronic and more slowly decrease performance. On the other hand overload often develops very quickly, can be very unpredictable, is usually more acute and also therefore usually leads to more rapid decreases in performance. Therefore doing a secondary task, like playing this game, might be helpful in the probably more common (and frankly safer on average) underload situations but could be disastrous in rapidly developing overload situations.

The fact that the game tries to adapt based on acceleration and GPS info is nice but is unlikely to be enough or fast enough in many rapidly developing overload situations. There is work in this area for cars that try and adapt and make driving safer or provide warnings based on workload levels but they usually use more tech than this. So yeah, trying to address underload in driving is nice to see, it is an under addressed issue, but I don't think this game is the best approach as it currently looks.

That said, I would suggest that if the developers are serious about this they contact some traffic psychologists (such as those at my lab (
ogy/index) but there are also many others around the world) and get them to run some real experimental trials on the concept (perhaps in a driving simulator, just to be safe).

Kenneth Blaney
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So what you are saying is that this might be useful for driving long distances in low traffic on highways, but for most people who are just driving around town this is next to useless? It would seem to me that you could use the pre-existing GPS functions on a lot of devices (which also have traffic information) and not simply be reactive to changes in the driver's current mental load but actually be proactive towards their expected load.

Ben Lewis-Evans
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@Kenneth I am not sure you could do very much with just GPS data - maybe a rough estimate based on traffic load if that information is there but otherwise you are going to be stuck with a reactive system (and by the time it is reacting the load is already there, so that is maybe not ideal.

Matt Albrecht
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Thank you for covering BRIGHTdriver. I wanted to announce that we have launched our first application, Holiday Rider, which can be downloaded on iTunes, here:
The free iPhone app provides interactive holiday trivia to keep you alert and entertained on your daily commutes or your long family trips. Forget, visual and physical distractions, you can test your holiday knowledge using only your voice.

Happy Holidays!