Disney Ups the Ante in Hand-Held Gaming Technology

Market research predicts that there will be as many as 39 million hand-held devices with embedded projectors on the market by 2014. Wouldn't it be a better world if these pocket-size projectors were used for something other than PowerPoint presentations? The folks at Disney Research at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh think so.

They have games, educational software, virtual worlds and storytelling in mind.

But application designers and developers who have seen the technology in action think that's just the beginning. They believe that the Disney technology will have wide-ranging implications for business applications as well as gaming and education.

 

The Disney team, headed by senior research scientist Ivan Poupyrev and lead researcher Karl Willis, answered the challenge by developing gaming system technology called MotionBeam. Using a device that combines a motion sensor, tiny projector and iPod Touch for processing power in a single hand-held device, it allows users to control projected characters and interact with them by moving and gesturing. "The projector can be embedded into mobile phones, game consoles or could be an independent mobile device," Willis told TechNewsDaily. "We are currently exploring a new system that makes multiplayer interaction with hand-held projects seamless. MotionBeam represents a new paradigm for hand-held gaming and has the potential to shake up what we expect from portable gaming devices."

What sets MotionBeam apart from other gaming devices such as the Wii is having the projector and its own onboard processor. The user, in essence, becomes the game console.

A broad range of gestures is possible with the platform such as tilting, shaking and changing distance between the projected surface and the device, according to Disney researchers. All these gestures can be mapped into character interaction using basic principles from animations and comic art.

It doesn't take more than a quick glance at the Disney cornucopia of characters to imagine the infinite commercial possibilities of this technology.

The Disney team developed two prototype games to demonstrate the technology in action, a character game and a racing game.

In the character game, the user guides a character through the game space by pointing with the projection device. Game play involves guiding the character along a trail of stars to collect points and increase the user’s score, while avoiding a villain character that chases them.

In the racing game, the user steers a vehicle to reach the end of a racetrack without falling off. By tilting the projector from side to side, the user controls the direction of the vehicle as it moves along the track. The speed of the vehicle is controlled automatically and gradually increases as the game progresses. The track also becomes more difficult as the game goes on and the user must navigate sharp turns, dead ends and tunnels.

Users can also make the characters interact with the physical environment using infrared LEDs.

"From a conceptual point of view, we aim to blur the 'real' and 'virtual' by having projected content respond to physical objects in a meaningful way," Willis said. "For example, the character jumps when it discovers a trampoline, or its vehicle spins out when it hits a puddle."

Disney is first and foremost a content company and has no plans to invade the turf of hardware manufacturers like Sony, the Disney team said.

"I have to stress that this project is focused on exploring and creating new forms of interactive content, which is where Disney main strength is," Poupyrev told TechNewsDaily." I would not expect that Disney would start producing hardware projectors; that is not what Disney does and there are consumer electronic companies that are making great projection hardware."

Instead, Poupyrev said, Disney would like to enhance existing pico projectors (the bame comes from the Italian for small)  with new functionality and new uses: gaming and storytelling. Hopefully, hand-held projectors will emerge as a new interactive content platform, not strictly a business application platform as it is used now. If such a content platform is established, then Disney as well as other content developers could then create and deliver a broad variety of new content for this new platform, such as games and interactive stories.

"Users will be able to experience our stories in a completely new way that was simply not possible before," he said. "And this is exciting."

That excitement is shared by application developers who have seen the technology in action. They believe it has the potential to become a disruptive technology — a game-changer. Many disruptive technologies have gained their first traction in the gaming world, they say.

"Gaming usually is the first client of these disruptive technologies," Rick Barraza, the creative director and primary experience architect of software developer Cynergy, told BusinessNewsDaily.

He believes that technologies such as MotionBeam will allow the creation of immersive experiences that would have been the stuff of science fiction only a few years ago. It marks a shift from group projection to personal perception technology that ties in with where you are and what you're doing.

It's personal and it's mobile, he said — the beneficiary of the convergence of smaller size and greater power in central processing units (CPU), graphics processing units (GPU) sensors and batteries in a single device.

"It gives us freedom," Barraza said, from working on traditional problems with traditional computers.

"In business, there are problems so big that they need to be visualized ," he said. "This breaks us away from screens and lets us immerse ourselves in the problem."

He envisions applications that would enable an architect walk through a building and see through walls, educational applications that would let kids interact in a noninvasive way with museum collections and displays and analytic tools that would enable researchers to visualize huge data sets.

"They can step into a room of data instead of looking at screens of data," he said.

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.