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Games put you in the action

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 3, 2000

If you think you are too involved with your computer now, prepare yourself. New games, gadgets and software eliminate the distance that separates you from your desktop, meaning that the face you see on the screen may look very much like your own.

Programmers are delivering high-immersion, interactive games in which players show up as themselves inside computer-generated environments. Once there, they can be seen doing everything from bounding down cartoon ski slopes to going foot-to-foot with a vicious, karate-kicking enfant terrible, and the action is controlled by what the computer's video camera sees the player doing.

These at-home, computer games are far more advanced than the virtual reality games commonly found in arcades, the kind that require players to don geeky helmet-visors and gawky gloves, only to stare into rudimentary backgrounds where the action is slow and minimal.

The first commercial examples of the new immersion technology, sometimes called Video As Input, or VAI, are appearing in computer games and activities with names such as VBall (an on-screen volleyball game), Horse (a basketball shooting contest) and Club Tune, a virtual dance hall in which music played by a combo of cartoon mutts changes tempo to match the movements of the players.

Game packages are available from Reality Fusion and Intel Play, and other companies are expected to follow soon. The big leap forward that they represent, some technologists say, is that the richer action can be controlled without a keyboard, mouse or any other physical input device, including those gawky gloves. And the new games work by making the game and the player virtual.

"It is sort of amazing," Joshua Silver, a research analyst for InfoTrends Research Group in Boston, said of the new game technology. "It is definitely a huge step forward."

Brett Bogar, Mattel's director of product design for Mattel-Intel Play Laboratory, the joint venture that designed the Me2Cam game system, agreed. "It is cutting-edge technology," Bogar said. "In the coming years you are going to see more and more products using this kind of technology. You're going to see it become more and more refined."

Although games may represent the first popular use of virtual controls, the technology could have applications far beyond popping on-screen bubbles. Some observers speculated that students could use the technology in virtual classrooms, including trips to a virtual blackboard. Virtual meetings, in which participants around the world could interact at a computer-generated conference table, also could be managed with video input technology.

The new technology could be used for training, providing virtual assembly lines on which workers could practice without the risk of disrupting production, said David Albert, a technology consultant and president of Albert-Battaglin Consulting Group in Soquel, Calif.

"This technology offers potential uses that are very broad and very sophisticated," he said. "The concept of interacting with the computer via the camera, using video as input, offers a whole extension of applications."

The key to the games' operation is their capacity to read visual and motion cues from players and translate them into electronic commands. The technology also could be used, Silver said, to coach patients through physical therapy in their homes and to revolutionize electronic commerce.

But Frederico Faggin, one of the designers of the first commercial microprocessor and an expert on the interaction of humans and machines, said that although he was impressed with the video input technology, he was uncertain how far and fast it would be adopted by the public.

"It is hard to tell," Faggin said, noting that people probably would use a combination of methods to interact with computers. "We are at the beginning of a process. How the creativity of the software people will manifest itself with this new paradigm still remains largely to be seen."

Engineers have designed programs that can use recent improvements in the processing power of home PCs to interpret signals from high-speed computer-mounted video cameras. The player is tracked as a video camera picks up his movement, such as the outline of a hand as it moves from frame to frame at 30 frames per second. The program analyzes what the camera sees and tries to remove everything in the scene that is not part of the player's image. Computer engineers say this allows the program to superimpose the player's moving image -- and not the wall behind the player -- into the game environment.

When the moving outlines come in contact with the outlines of game elements in the computer, such as the roundness of a virtual basketball, the program instructs the game to respond appropriately. This enables a player to move his hand to tap a basketball that exists only on the computer screen and then see a video image of his hand tap the ball into a virtual basket.

The programs are hardly perfect. The images are sometimes ghostly, and players can sometimes discover themselves pushing their fingers right through virtual buttons.

Albert suggests that video as input could replace keyboards, joysticks, track balls and pads, touch screens such as those on automated teller machines and even the mouse. Others venture further, saying that more advanced examples of the technology could enable future generations of voice-activated computers to read facial expressions and body language better.

Tim Callan, vice president for marketing at Reality Fusion, said the technology could help create more intuitive and interactive computers similar to the fictional Hal 2000 computer in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey

-- but without the murderous malfunctions. The company, founded in 1997 in Santa Cruz, Calif., is preparing to release a kit for developers that will make it easier for other companies to use its game technology for new applications.

"We don't intend to grow as a stand-alone, skrink-wrapped product," Callan said. "We intend to build a platform from which others can develop their products that can be used in other walks of life."

In the meantime, gaming is the platform that Intel Play and Reality Fusion are turning to in the hope of winning converts to the new technology. Because the new games do not require traditional input devices -- except for the lengthy installation and a few mouse clicks to get started -- the learning curve for young children is very short. "For a small child, it magically transports him into a whole new world," Bogar said.


Intel Play's Me2Cam

PRICE: $100

SYSTEM: Windows 98

INCLUDES: Translucent blue camera and game pack with five activities, among them a snowboarding game and onscreen pinball machine that invites players to be the paddles. Aimed at players 4 and older.

COMMENTS: Because the game doesn't require traditional input devices, the learning curve for young children is very short. Older children will enjoy the snowboarding and pinball games but will probably find the other activities purely kid stuff.

Reality Fusion's GameCam

PRICE: $129.

SYSTEM: Windows 98

INCLUDES: A computer video camera by Logitech and games aimed at preteens and young adults.

COMMENTS: While the games and activities are more engaging than many found in the Me2Cam game pack, the technology is not as refined.

-- New York Times

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