Op-Ed

Op-Ed
From the Vault: In 3-D

Allen Varney | 6 Apr 2011 13:00
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If you want this hard-nosed commercial tech adapted to something as frivolous as gaming, it turns out you must go - where else? - on campus.

Real Quake
In June 2004, the online edition of the electrical engineering journal IEEE Spectrum made a rare venture into science fiction with Vernor Vinge's story "Synthetic Serendipity," excerpted from his 2006 novel Rainbows End. Vinge presents a world blanketed with sensors, always-on and pervasively networked. Characters move easily through this ocean of mediated information, interfacing with it through contact-lens displays and clothing that senses twitching muscles. Harry Goldstein's companion article to "Serendipity" outlines the tech underlying this augmented environment - cheap sensors, mesh networks, ubiquitous computing, haptics and what some call "augmented reality" (AR).

Goldstein mentions ARQuake, a 2001-02 research project by the Wearable Computer Lab at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. As described in the ARQuake FAQ, "We modified Quake to take its view information from a GPS and orientation sensor, and so as you walk around, Quake moves in sync with the real world. Monsters and buildings appear to sit in the real world as though they were really there, and then you can play a game of Quake while you are in the real physical world." They used Quake because it's open-source, and because they needed to keep the monsters stupid: "When running around outside, it is not possible to move at the same speed as on a desktop ... so if the monsters are too smart and too fast, they will always beat you. In Quake, we use monsters which are intentionally slow and not too powerful, to give the player a chance to actually beat them." The team later revised ARQuake as part of the ongoing Tinmith project, which includes their Black & White-like Hand of God. You yourself can't play ARQuake - the lab is busy, and the hardware costs way too much - but some of the principals have started a company, A-Rage (for "Augmented Reality Active Game Engine") that is working on AR Sky Invaders, a commercial Space Invaders-type game.

The Augmented Environments Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology has created ARCraft, a real-time strategy game. "Using head tracking and wand-based interaction, each player navigates his or her fighting force around obstacles while hunting for the enemy. Our research goal is to investigate how people can use AR to work together (or against each other) in a shared virtual space while maintaining remote physical spaces." Again, though, ARCraft is private. You can't play. Go home.

If not augmented reality, what about virtual reality? It's just like AR, except you can't move around. Arguably the world's best-established 3-D view technology is the CAVE, or Cave Automatic Virtual Environment. Standing in a dark 10-foot cube with sides made of rear-projection screens, you wear (groan) shutter glasses with positional sensors. Projected imagery surrounds you and moves in response to your head movements. CAVEs have been around for 15 years, and lots of campus computer science departments have one. They're used for medical visualization, prototyping, cognitive psychology research and urban planning, but not for gaming - at least not where the Board of Regents can find out.

In case you can't muster the six-digit installation cost for your own CAVE, you might try the budget versions, ImmersaDesk and Infinity Wall - though these basically amount to home theater setups.

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