It might be dropping down a sheer slope of virgin powder snow; it might be fumbling with an office colleague during an illicit lunch meeting. It might be running from computer aliens on another planet, or simply gorging on a bar of chocolate in the middle of the night.
What thrills us depends on our personal hopes, fears, loves and desires. But now a British designer, working with a computer scientist, is creating a machine that can measure the experience of thrill.
The hope is to create an industry-standard measure that can be used to gauge thrilling experiences, and, ultimately, dynamically modify such experiences in real time. For computer gamers, the prospect is tantalizing.
Brendan Walker, a research fellow based at the Royal College of Art in London, has already built an auto-portrait machine that detects the sensation of thrill by utilizing the galvanic skin response, or GSR, a measure of the conductivity of the skin often used in lie detectors. The idea is that when the nervous system is aroused, such as when one is lying, the skin sweats and becomes more conductive.
“During sudden visceral pleasures — for example, fairground rides — the sympathetic nervous system becomes aroused,” said Walker. “This gives a huge increase in skin conductance.”
For Walker’s photographic purposes, however, the peak of conductance comes after the facial expression he wants to capture.
“I therefore used an algorithm set to look for the onset of a peak in arousal, which is characterized by an initial high rate of change. This greatly reduced the system latency,” he said. With the auto-portrait machine thus set up, he was able to catch the very peak moment of thrill.
Now Walker wants to take his ideas further, and build what he calls a Thrill Measuring Device. Based on the same GSR technology, the proposed device will work as a thrill sensor during fairground rides or computer games, and modify the experience accordingly.
“Consider a fairground Waltzer,” said Walker. “The ride operator watches, and listens to his riders. He’ll turn up the music and spin the chairs if he’s not getting shrieks of delight. But he’ll also make the ride go slower if younger children are looking scared. Thrill Measuring Devices could take the place of the ride operator, and be used to automatically tailor each ride experience to the sensibilities of each rider.”
But it is when GSR data is linked with computer gaming — already an experience in which players talk about being “immersed” — that the Thrill Measuring Device could have most impact.