Voice Play Games

Use Your Words: Voice Tech Enriches Board Games

By Scott Lozier and Stephanie Van Ness

There’s a common theme running through technology: new things come onto the market and everyone says “That’s the next best thing!” But then it isn’t. Well, at least not right away. It takes time for people to understand the new technology, and as that happens the tech starts to get used in unexpected ways.

That’s the case with games, including that Family Night staple, the board game. We’re beginning to see the integration of voice control, smart screens and gesture tech into not only digital games but traditional ones as well. And Thinkables — games you can control with your mind — are on the horizon.

Why is this happening? This tech — especially voice — is already popular elsewhere in the consumer market. In addition, smart displays are improving, and IoT devices are cheap. As a result, your next board-game controller may not be at your fingertips. For game developers, the world of possibilities has expanded exponentially.

Board Games on the Rise

Perhaps as an escape from our digital culture, old-school board games are enjoying a resurgence. According to NPD Group, physical board game sales in the U.S. grew by 28 percent in 2016. And board game cafes — where you can play childhood favorites and new releases while savoring delicious food and drink — have popped up from coast to coast.

In tandem with the renewed popularity of games is the growing embrace of smart tech. In 2019, 40% of US households own or will own a smart speaker, according to FTI Trends 2019, making the integration of voice a viable element to enrich the experience of board games.

Game players have been dreaming of this since 2007. Now that voice is viable, developers are creating integrations and designers are beginning to rethink their games. Of course, not all games — digital or traditional — are suitable for voice. One challenge with using voice is speed. There’s often a little delay while your voice gets recognized and turned into a command. So voice isn’t a great solution for control games that require players to make split-second decisions. But voice is a great option for quiz or logic games where players often need a moment to think.

Examples of games that work well with voice:

  • Quiz

  • Trivia (especially those with musical questions)

  • Bandersnach/Adventure 

Board Games with Alexa

You: Alexa, open When in Rome.

Alexa: Opening the game!

Sensible Object’s Alexa-enabled, AI-powered travel trivia game When in Rome is a great example of how to successfully integrate voice into a game. For those unfamiliar, in this game players are transported to 20 cities on the world map game board. Voices from residents from each city, speaking in local accents, ask players trivia questions from categories such as slang, and food and drink.

By incorporating the Alexa voice tech in the game, there’s no more need for printed instructions. Alexa speaks the rules — who wants to read the rulebook these days? — as well as converses with players based on 20+ hrs of interactive dialogue built into the game. This tech allows for endless variety as Alexa remembers the specific questions each player has been asked and always supplies a fresh one. And voice makes set up a breeze, helping players get started and then guiding them through the entire gameplay experience.

Sure, this could be accomplished with a smartphone but the experience would never be as good and it would cost a lot more. So, as a game developer, why build all those UI pieces when this is accomplished perfectly with voice? (You’d still need to design the Voice UI but you would remove the iPhone development costs.)

Smart Displays

Though voice is relatively new to physical board games — When in Rome was only released last year —  tech is already moving beyond voice to visual. Smart Displays are voice assistant technology like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant with a twist. When you can ask for something, instead of hearing a voice response you get a visual response. Think of the video daily double on Jeopardy!. Alexa is the Alex Trebek, and the monitor is the window display.

Myriad tech companies have built libraries to support rapid development on their platforms. A few examples of the growing number of devices and platforms include Echo Show 2nd Generation, Lenovo Smart Display, Google Home Hub, JBL Link View and Echo Spot. The expectation is that when people start to feel comfortable with these devices, the tech companies will begin to create next-gen interactive content that surpasses what’s possible with just Alexa — taking game-play to another level.

Gadgets

IoT. rPi. Arduino. Adafruit. There’s no end to the innovation that’s happening in the makerspace right now. There are still a lot of touch-powered efforts, like the Plinko game Integrated Computer Solutions built last year using a Raspberry Pi as the controller. But there are other technologies in play as well. For instance, we’ve built applications using NFC/RFID tags and an application that does location detection. Imagine what games could be created with those technologies!  

Thinkables

Yeah, it’s real. Voice will one day be replaced by thoughts. Boston-based Neurable, which builds neurotechnology tools the company claims interpret human intent, measure emotion and provide telekinetic control of the digital world, has created a brain-controlled VR game called Awakening. Players control the game with their thoughts thanks to a brain-computer interface (BCI) — a direct communication pathway between an enhanced or wired brain and an external device, according to the company. The tech is already happening in the lab. Neurable claims their BCIs can be used not only to control games, but also for educational and marketing (can you say mind control?) purposes.

The Takeaway

Voice technology is changing the way people play games. Machine learning will help the tech mature, greatly enhancing the gameplay experience for both traditional and digital games. And just as gamers get use to this tech, Thinkables will shake things up again. Don’t talk. Just think.

Want to read more about developing interactive games? Check out 5 Rules for Creating Crowd-Pleasing Interactive Games and A Recipe for a Tasty Interactive Game.

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