Thursday, September 23, 2010

No limits: wave your arms, kick your feet and leap into the blue. Everymove you make is part of the game.(interactive computer games).

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IK+ : Best karate game ever!, originally uploaded by Frenkieb. USA, LLC

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HIGH kicks, karate chops and vicious punches are just the thing to beat off a horde of flesh-eating zombies. Unfortunately it takes a good deal more than that to shift a typical computer gamer from a comfy chair. No matter how hard they work their virtual selves, their real selves remain stationary, the only sign of life their twitching thumbs and an occasional ape-like grunt.

It is hardly surprising then, that since the 1970s when the tennis game Pong first hit video screens, parents have accused computer games of turning their children into couch potatoes. Now, though, those same parents might be lining up to buy them. That's because there is a new generation of games that could finally get kids of all ages up on their feet.

In a few weeks' time, at the E3 video gaming conference in Los Angeles, companies will be showcasing technology designed to provide players with more compelling ways to interact with virtual worlds. As well as offering all the usual entertainment, these machines should also get sluggish gamers off their backsides by substituting their arms, legs and bodies for the joystick controller.

Cynics might dismiss the idea as just another marketing gimmick, but if all goes to plan, these games could finally call time on your old-fashioned joystick--and your favourite sofa--for the future of game play lies with the whole you.

Interacting effectively with computers has always been a tricky problem. Any gamer will tell you that a keyboard and mouse are fine for data entry, but for serious gaming you need a specially designed controller. This must allow the player to direct on-screen characters with extraordinary precision--to run, jump, kick, crawl, crouch and punch--and to use a bewildering variety of weapons and implements. That's why the typical controller is a two-handed affair bristling with buttons and joysticks. These controllers guarantee a fast response, but make a player more or less static. The amazing athleticism of the game's characters is in stark contrast to the sluggishness of the gamers themselves. It's easy to become lost in these visually complex worlds, playing for hours with fingers ablur but with your body otherwise motionless.

It's not that people haven't tried to change the nature of games controllers. In the late 1960s and 70s, artist and computer scientist Myron Krueger experimented with human-computer interaction at the University of Wisconsin, and developed a number of whole-body games in the process. His art installations incorporated pressure pads, cameras and video screens and enabled people to "move" virtual objects using their own silhouettes so that they could play volleyball or noughts and crosses on a screen.

Run, hop and skip

Krueger had the advantage of being able to control the environment in which this took place--usually an art gallery with carefully adjusted lighting--and he had access to state-of-the-art computing power. Even then, the reliability and speed of this kind of interaction was far from perfect.

Things began to change in the late 1980s with the release of a pressure-sensitive floor mat called the Power Pad for playing games on a Nintendo Entertainment System. The games required the player to run, hop and skip on the mat to avoid various obstacles on screen. The Power Pad--and a hand-based controller from Mattel called the Power Glove--represented a revolution in game control, but neither of them caught on.

Then, a decade later, a computer game called Dance Dance Revolution--or Dancing Stage in Europe--began to appear in arcades around the world. Created by the Japanese gaming company Konami, DDR uses a set of pressure pads which the player must press with their feet in response to on-screen commands. This time it was a huge success. DDR has become a global craze with its own subculture and tournaments. In Norway, DDR is registered as an official sport. Today there are over 90 variants of the game and many offspring offering similar features.

The game became so popular that Konami decided to create a version for home consoles such as the Sega Dreamcast, Microsoft's Xbox and the Sony PlayStation, and home DDR quickly became a hit too. This raised the possibility in the minds of other game makers of looking beyond the conventional controller.

At about this time Richard Marks, a computer scientist with a background in robotic control, began to think about other forms of game control. In 1999 he joined Sony Computer Entertainment R&D in California to develop the idea of connecting a video camera to a PlayStation console and controlling games using its input. In 2003, Sony released the result of his work--the EyeToy. For the first time, game designers had a video input they could use to control games. The question was: what could they do with it?

The first generation of games were relatively simple--players see themselves on the screen and wave their arms to clean windows or punch objects that appear on the screen. But the games are becoming more sophisticated. For example, in one game players can use their head and arms to fly through a landscape, and another is specifically designed to improve fitness (See "Fat Fighters", above).

Just add eyes

What made the EyeToy possible were cheap cameras offering reasonable quality images combined with games consoles with the processing power to handle them. But the system still has limitations. While the PlayStation2 can distinguish a moving body from the background, it cannot easily identify specific parts, such as a hand or a head, and track them--precisely what you'd need if you were to pick up a helmet on screen, say, and put it on. However, simply tracking a player's head movements uses up about 20 per cent of the processing power on a PlayStation2, way too much considering that the processor also needs to deal with images and sound as well.

There are other problems too. At the moment the camera can only track objects in relatively good light. And while it can capture images at up to 30 frames per second--enough to fool the human brain into thinking a movement is smooth--that is not fast enough to allow a computer to track and react to the fastest of movements--which you would need in a virtual fight, for instance. "To capture the movement of a sword you need 120 frames per second," says Marks. "A faster frame rate is just more reactive."

Video is not the only way to get your body involved in gameplay. In September, Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo, showed off a new wireless controller for the company's next-generation games console. It looks a bit like a TV remote, but the controller is able to determine its position and orientation in space relative to the console. Nintendo is tight-lipped about how it works, but the device probably relies on a gyroscopic sensor a little larger than a sugar cube that has been designed by California-based company Gyration. Rather than the spinning wheel used in conventional gyroscopes, this sensor has tiny vibrating arms mounted at right angles to each other, each one tipped with a tiny magnet. Any acceleration alters the vibrations in the arms, and magnetic sensors mounted alongside measure this by detecting changes in magnetic field. Nintendo says its controller can measure yaw as well as tilt.

You can swing it like a bat, tap it like a drumstick, turn it like a steering wheel or point it like a gun--the controller translates each action into movements within the game. The device also has buttons and a keypad that allow it be used as a conventional controller. Nintendo has demonstrated the device in games as a fishing rod, an aircraft and a hockey stick, but which games Nintendo has up its sleeve for its new system--provisionally code-named Revolution--and when it will be launched should be revealed at the E3 conference in May.

EyeToy is also set to improve. In November, the PlayStation 3 is scheduled to go on the market. Where the PS2 had one image-processing chip, the PS3 has seven, each of which is 10 times as fast as a PS2 chip. That should make a huge difference. The extra processing power can deal with 60 images per second, which will make it possible to control games using much more complex movements.

Sizing you up

The PS3 will be able to track the movement of different body parts independently and get a rough idea of the player's distance from the console by measuring head size, so the computer can place objects in front of and behind the player, for example. It will also be able to track objects coated with a special reflective material that makes them appear bright. At last year's E3 show, for example, Marks demonstrated the PS3's capability by playing with virtual water, pouring it between two real cups coated in the fabric. Give players gloves of this material and they could pick up and drag virtual objects in an interface much like that in the film Minority Report.

Even though these new kinds of features are available, persuading games developers to use them is an uphill struggle, says Marks. He admits that there remain limitations with the EyeToy--fast, complex movements may remain problematic, for example--but developers might be able to find creative ways to get around them, he says. Marks gives the example of early computer games in which the graphics pallet was limited to four colours. What developers quickly learned to do was swap pallets in the middle of generating a scene so that the top half of the screen was rendered with different colours to the bottom half. It was an idea that effectively doubled the number of colours that the player would see. "It's those kinds of tricks that we need to see more of for the EyeToy," he says.

Some are already emerging. For example,

there is no force feedback with the EyeToy--get hit by a virtual ball or bullet, say, and you feel nothing. However, you can achieve a remarkable approximation using sound. "Your brain does most of the work," Marks says. "Sound doesn't replace force feedback, but it is the next best thing."

Marks has his sights set on some new tricks, too. One of the biggest drawbacks of video input at the moment is that it gives only a two-dimensional image of the player. His dream is to translate the three-dimensional movements of the player into the actions of a character or object in the game. Stereo images produced with two cameras are not the answer, he says, because such an arrangement has to be carefully calibrated each time the game is played to correct for any slight differences in alignment of the cameras. "That is a stumbling block for home use," he says. Another option is to measure distance using the camera's focusing system, but that gives only a rough idea based on what part of the image the camera has focused on.

A much more promising approach is beginning to take shape thanks to a new generation of cameras that are sensitive to infrared light as well as visible wavelengths. These cameras can record accurate three-dimensional images using infrared flashes (see Illustration, below). When a scene--a player holding one hand out towards the camera, say--is illuminated with an infrared flash, the games console can measure how long it takes the light to travel to the player's body and be reflected back into the camera. This information is used to create a contour map of the player. Repeat the process 60 times a second and you have a 3D movie.

Marks has already begun experiments. With a 3D camera, he can import his entire body into a game. When he dances, his onscreen character--a skeleton at the moment--dances too. When he punches or kicks, the skeleton mimics his movements exactly. With this kind of technology, says Marks, your imagination is the limit.

It's not just home consoles that could benefit from this technology. Marks is looking at what cameras can do for handheld devices such as Sony's PlayStation Portable. Attach a camera to a PSP, he says, and it becomes a new kind of lens for looking at the world. Point the camera along a street and on the screen you could see game characters superimposed onto the pavement. "Augmented reality could be a big application," he says.

It will be a while before devices with these features appear on the market. Marks says that his 3D camera system is not yet ready for the consumer market because of the expensive electronics it needs to measure the travel time of light over such short distances. But that will change. "I have a dream scene," he says. It's a scene from the film Spiderman in which the hero flicks his wrist to shoot a web towards a nearby building. "I'm a big fan of Spiderman, and I'd love to be able to recreate that capability with the EyeToy, with a flick of your wrist." When this might appear is difficult to say, but Marks's brief provides a clue: "We never look more than five years into the future."

Fat fighters

Last April, 85 children in West Virginia received a gift from a local health insurance company--a Sony PlayStation 2. The machine came with a game called Dance Dance Revolution in which the player follows a fast-paced dance routine using an interactive mat that feeds feet movements back to the console. It's a dream toy for most children, but the insurance company wasn't being purely altruistic.

In West Virginia, more than a third of children are overweight. These are the next generation of clients for the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency, which provides health insurance for 215,000 public employees and their dependents. "We have an obesity epidemic in West Virginia," says Nadia Henderson, a spokeswoman for the agency. "Giving them PlayStations is good business sense if it helps them lose weight."

It's part of a study to see if this type of computer game can reduce obesity. So far, results seem positive. For example, one 11-year-old boy weighing 80 kilograms lost 4.5 kilograms in two weeks.

Tilt to win

Don't be surprised if you see gamers frantically tilting and twisting their laptops.

In 2003, IBM built an accelerometer--a device more commonly found in, say, airbags--into a laptop. The idea was that it would spot if a laptop is dropped and lift the heads off the hard disk to prevent damage. Other companies, including Apple and Toshiba, quickly followed suit. Then Amit Singh, a researcher at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, became interested. He reasoned that an accelerometer could open up new ways to control computer programs, including games, simply by tilting or shaking a computer. So he worked out a way to capture the output from the sensor used in Apple's laptops in real time.

In 2005 Singh released his findings, and programmers began to put the idea to work. One of the first games to appear was Bubblegym, in which a player controls a rolling ball by tilting a laptop--a simple idea, but one that could kick off a new branch of interactive gaming.

Source Citation
Mullins, Justin. "No limits: wave your arms, kick your feet and leap into the blue. Every move you make is part of the game." New Scientist 190.2548 (2006): 38+. Academic OneFile. Web. 23 Sept. 2010.
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