A rookie goaltender is trying out for a hockey team. The pucks are lined up and shots are ready to be taken.

The first puck is shot down the ice. The goalie leans left. Knocked down. Save!

But only one section of the crowd goes wild.

That’s not because the other sections fell asleep. It’s actually quite the opposite. Everybody is out of their seats and moving around, despite the fact that there isn’t a single hockey player on the ice.

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That rookie goalie isn’t real at all, he’s merely a videogame avatar displayed on the Urbandale Centre’s giant screen above the rink, being controlled by the entire crowd. And those quieter sections? They failed to stop the puck and gave up the goal.

It’s between periods at an Ottawa 67’s junior hockey game and everyone is playing Save!, a casual hockey videogame running on the Vision Interactive system from CrowdWave.

This gaming platform works by using a series of high-resolution cameras placed around the arena to capture crowd movement and convert it into gameplay. In Save!, sections of the crowd are pit against each other trying to make the goalie stop as many pucks as possible. If enough people in a section move their arms to the right, that’s where the goalie goes and vice-versa.

“It’s a videogame where the crowd is the controller,” says Ottawa 67’s Vice President Randy Burgess.

Motion-controlled games have been around for quite some time, peaking in 2006 with Nintendo’s release of the Wii. Both Sony and Microsoft have made their own entries into the motion gaming market with the Move and Kinect respectively, but while these systems will be set up in living rooms, the Ottawa, Ontario-based CrowdWave has brought a similar experience to arenas.

The Vision Interactive system made its debut on home ice October 2009 and had its first away game a few months later when it was picked up by the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team for games at the Quicken Loan Arena.

There, sections of the stadium would compete against each other at a variation of Dance Dance Revolution called Dance Off, played by having spectators wave their arms around in the directions shown on the giant screen.

The system can also be used to take a poll of the crowd through movement to find out, for example, which highlights fans would like to see replayed or which player was the crowd favorite at that point in the match. Venues can also use the technology to compile data on which sections of the game had spectators moving and cheering the most.

A lot of computing power is required to perform the analysis of high-res video and calculate the average crowd movements that make the system work. In that sense, CrowdWave’s development was helped out by the constant decrease in the price of computer hardware.

“I don’t think we would’ve been able to do this three years ago and have it be economical,” says CrowdWave president and founder Mark Edwards.

The story behind CrowdWave begins in 2007 when Edwards, a former lawyer and animation producer, started up Bent 360: Medialab Inc. (of which CrowdWave is a division) as a branded entertainment firm. Edwards quickly realized the market had become quite competitive and he’d need a unique product to differentiate his new venture.

While searching for fresh ideas, Edwards discovered machine vision systems, which in essence use “smart cameras” to capture and analyze images. They’re typically used for purposes like photographing products coming off a conveyor belt to have a computer check for flaws.

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Inspired by this technology and earlier camera-based motion games, Edwards wondered if it could be done on a larger scale. He assembled a team to build a working prototype and soon discovered that it was, in fact, possible. Of course, building the prototype was only half the battle. Edwards now needed to find a buyer willing to take a chance on something completely new that had never been done on such a large scale before.

“We looked for people with deep pockets,” says Edwards. “Pro sports seemed to fit our criteria.” Sporting organizations generally aim to provide a non-stop entertainment experience, and Edwards figured a system that had the crowds playing a quick game would be a good fit. It didn’t hurt that sporting venues are fairly similar, which would help avoid hassles with installation.

Enter the Urbandale Centre, home ice for the Ottawa 67’s.

With the prototype in hand, Edwards approached team VP Burgess about piloting the project.

“We’re always looking for ways to entertain fans and ways to get them more involved in being fans,” says Burgess. “And CrowdWave promised this.”

As Edwards describes it, the initial setup was not particularly smooth. It was mired with technical glitches, most stemming from trying to get a computer running Windows connected to the arena’s older broadcast equipment. Then there was the issue of the fans themselves.

“We had no idea how they would move,” says Edwards.

But on October 30, 2009, the spectators confronted by this new videogame system did move, though some tweaks needed to be made to the overall presentation.

Since that initial trial run, CrowdWave has grown rapidly. In a year, the company has gone from three employees (bulked up by freelancers) to a dozen, moving into a larger office to accommodate everyone. The Vision Interactive system has gone from being installed in two venues to being set up in arenas across the U.S. in places ranging from Columbus, Minnesota and Dallas.

More venues hosting the technology and more fans becoming familiar with the system created the need for more games. For NBA teams, there’s a tip-off game in which fans must jump in time with a virtual basketball player to tip a ball into the net. There’s also a large-scale take on Rock, Paper, Scissors in which one spectator is chosen to take on the entire crowd, which votes on its choice through hand gestures. The quick pace of RPS allows venues to run either a single play or hold a best out of three match.

The games can also be as simple as sports trivia questions made interactive by allowing sections to vote for their answer by putting their arms up in a particular direction.

“We look at casual games and what are the key skills in a sport,” says Edwards of game design influences. “We look to build sport-specific games,” like a tug-of-war game that challenges the crowd to see which section can “pull” farther.

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Edwards acknowledges that he’s not much into hardcore gaming fare and generally prefers to get out and play hockey than stay home with a console, though he does own a Wii, on which he gravitates toward games that require a lot of movement.

“I tend to prefer real world physical stuff,” he says. “I like the games where I get to stand up and move.”

Developing these games for a unique system does present unique challenges. For CrowdWave, the biggest one is time. The game developers have between 30 and 90 seconds to make it clear to the audience that they are about to play a videogame, show them how to play and then have them actually play.

“We don’t have time for people to learn and play multiple levels,” says Edwards. “They need to be simple from a gameplay perspective, but interesting from a visual perspective.”

Creating an interesting visual experience on large arena screens gives venues another incentive to buy into the system: branding possibilities. In Save!, the goalie wears the home team’s jersey, while the tug-of-war game can feature team mascots or cheerleaders. Venues can also sell advertising space in the game; it could be two Ford cars pulling away at the virtual rope, for example.

With the sales handled for the 2010-2011 sports season, Edwards says he’s focused on where he can bring the Vision Interactive system next. First up: the arenas that have already installed the system. Those venues tend to have more going on than just the home sports team: concerts, rodeos and Monster Truck rallies among others. All of them could use a videogame during downtime.

But that would require even more new games.

As the overall gaming market is soon to have plenty more motion-capture titles with the recent launches of the Sony Move and Xbox Kinect, Edwards would like to open up his gaming platform to third-party developers to see what they can bring to the table.

“For this to really take off, we need to have other people thinking about how to make it work,” he says. “No group of individuals can corner the market on creativity.”

Robert Janelle is an Ottawa, Canada based freelance journalist. His blog is at http://waa.loudandskittish.com

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