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.
"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.