The Ontario Tech University's Gaming Lab

Dimitri Tsalavoutas


In this month’s adventure, I was given a tour of Ontario Tech University’s Games And Media Entertainment Research (GAMER) Lab by its Research Director, Dr. Lennart Nacke.  Dr. Nacke teaches in the Game Development and Entrepreneurship undergraduate program at Ontario Tech University, and has a PhD in Digital Game Development.  Dr. Nacke’s vision is to “create interactive entertainment systems for everyday computers that are mobile and usable in everyday life.”

This lab is FULL of cutting-edge technology. 

In the gaming lab, there are four core research areas:

  1. Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Games User Research (GUR)
  2. Serious Games and Gaming
  3. Gamification
  4. Health Games

Dr. Nacke studies and teaches HCI, GUR and Game Design together with Dr. Pejman Mirza-Babaei.  Simply put, they are about studying people’s reactions to games in order to provide them with not only a better interactive experience, but also to develop new ways of providing engagement on many different systems.  Human emotions and cognition are measured to see which games are more emotionally engaging and why.  Below is a LEAP motion controller.  It is a tool that senses and enables gesture interaction with the game.


In Serious Games and Gaming, games are used in training and education – fields whose primary purpose is something other than entertainment.  People who want to be game developers and play games 24/7 will enjoy this field of study.

Gamification is about using game design in non-gaming systems.  The purpose here is to make boring old activities more exciting.  Task management software, such as accounting programs, can be ‘gamified’.  For example, mundane spreadsheet software is interactive, but can be made fun to input numbers in and get results from.  Levels can be added and you can get points based on accuracy and speed of level completion.  Another interesting example is ‘gamifying’ the computer screen calibration process.  Rather than lining up the dots and clicking the mouse to calibrate your computer screen, you can play Space Invaders to calibrate the screen instead! 

Health Games research involves fitness and exercise games.  A project some students at the lab are currently working on is the development of games for people who are 50 or older, to help them stay mentally and physically active.  This is sponsored by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) in a joint project with a Toronto-based company, Vintage Fitness.

Game technology graduate students come to study in Dr. Nacke’s group from all over the world!  There have been students from Brazil, Germany, Portugal and The Netherlands, for example. They work in the lab full-time over the summer developing new interactive software, evaluation methods and theories in the world of gaming.

Henk-Jan is a research intern from the Netherlands.  In the picture below, he showed me a game of Asteroids using an eye tracker, where the player simply looks at the asteroids to destroy them.  An advanced infrared camera reflects light from the back of the player’s eyes to see where they are looking, so there is no need for a keyboard or mouse!  This game was not made at the GAMER Lab, but it is a good example of the amazing technology they work with.  Henk-Jan hopes to create similar projects to promote health games for special populations, such as people with motor disabilities.


In another game science lab room below, research is focused around human reactions while gaming.  Here, volunteers will wear sensor equipment that can identify different actions and feelings that the person experiences while they play games.  Loads of students from different faculties want to be part of the gaming lab, so they volunteer there during the summer and sometimes during the term.  For example, Kinesiology students like to take part in games with physical activities, as they also get to learn interesting facts about the human body while gaming. Engineering students, for another example, come to tinker with new interactive technology for games.


The Styrofoam head on the left below shows where some of the sensors are placed for emotion studies (Electromyography - EMG).  Muscular activations in the face can be scientifically measured to figure out the player's emotion in certain points in the game.  Other sensors (on the right, below) go on the volunteer’s hands or feet to measure physiological activation (it measures the sweat activity of your skin). All of this is part of Dr. Nacke’s HCI research.











Below, Dr. Nacke holds a custom Wii Fit Balance Board (used for a game called Magic Duel), that was put together by an Engineering student over the summer to create a public game installation.  Another tool in this lab is the PC Gamer Bike that was used last summer to create a first-person fitness shooter game.


This technology can be used in areas other than gaming, such as in computer-aided assistance tools.  Feedback from the sensors can trigger a computer system to respond to humans in a certain manner.  In the automobile industry, for example: imagine that you are in your car, and there are concealed sensors built into the steering wheel.  The computers sense that you are angry, and so the radio plays nice, soothing classical music.  In another example, imagine that a surgeon is in the middle of a surgery and in a real panic.  The surgery is not going as planned and action needs to be taken quickly.  Sensors tell a computer that the surgeon needs assistance, and more specific guidance is shown on the computer to assist in the surgery. These are examples of how HCI, health games and gamification intersect in this research lab.

The biggest takeaway from the gaming labs is that gaming is everywhere in our lives.  Soon, people that are older will have many new and exciting ways to keep their minds active, and stay physically fit.  People with disabilities will also have more entertainment available, and it does not have to stop there.   The real-life applications of these gaming devices seem endless, and very useful outside of gaming.  There are many incredible instruments and studies taking place in the gaming program, and I think it is a great place for Ontario Tech University students to learn. If you are interested in a lab summer volunteering position, you can contact Dr. Nacke on Twitter.

Want to see more of our campus? Check out our virtual tour!

Check out our Virtual Campus Tour

Editor's note: Since this blog was published, Ontario Tech University and technology company Tobii have announced an agreement to bring eye tracking technology (like the kind featured in the Asteroids game) to students. Read the follow-up post to find out more.

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