Awesome Kid Robot Toy

This vinyl toy is so freaking awesome – via kidrobotrules:

Finally, the time has come for the explosive launch of Dunny Series 2010. Tonight, release parties are celebrating around the globe for this highly anticipated new series with an exclusive tote bag and super rare Relish Dunny. Check the worldwide map for a trading party nearest you. Day 19 is a two-fer with Sket One’s awesome designs, Dunny Boom and the Relish exclusive. Bon appetite.

Gameware: A Case-Study in AR Development

I have been aided in this series by a connection with Gameware Development Limited, a Cambridge-based commercial enterprise working in the entertainment industry. Gameware was formed in May 2003 from Creature Labs Ltd, developing for the PC games market which produced the market leading game in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Creatures. When Gameware was formed, a strategic decision was made to move away from retail products and into the provision of technical services. They now work within the Broadcasting and Mobile Telephony space in addition to the traditional PC market. I use this business as a platform to launch into a discussion of the developments current and past that could see AR become a part of contemporary life, and just why AR is such a promising technology.

Gameware’s first explorations into AR came when they were commissioned by the BBC to develop an AR engine and software toolkit for a television show to be aired on the CBBC channel. The toolkit lets children build virtual creatures or zooks at home on their PCs which are uploaded back to the BBC and assessed:

 

A typical Zook, screenshot taken from Gameware's Zook Kit which lets children build virtual creatures
A typical Zook, screenshot taken from Gameware's Zook Kit which lets children build virtual creatures

 

The children with the best designs are then invited to the BAMZOOKi studio to have their virtual creatures compete against each other in a purpose-built arena comprised of real and digital elements. The zooks themselves are not real, of course, but the children can see silhouettes of digital action projected onto the arena in front of them. Each camera has an auxiliary camera pointed at AR markers on the studio ceiling, meaning each camera’s exact location in relation to the simulated events can be processed in real time. The digital creatures are stitched into the footage, and are then navigable and zoomable as if they were real studio elements. No post-production is necessary. BAMZOOKi is currently in its fourth series, with repeats aired daily:

 

BAMZOOKi, BBC's AR game show where children’s zooks compete in a studio environment
BAMZOOKi, BBC's AR game show where children’s zooks compete in a studio environment

 

BAMZOOKi has earned Childrens BBC some of its highest viewing figures (up to 1.2 million for the Monday shows on BBC1 and around 100,000 for each of the 20 episodes shown on digital Children’s BBC), which represents a massive milestone for AR and its emergence as a mainstream media technology. The evidence shows that there is a willing audience already receptive to contemporary AR applications. Further to the viewing figures the commercial arm of the BBC, BBC Worldwide, is in talks to distribute the BAMZOOKi format across the world, with its AR engine as its biggest USP. Gameware hold the rights required to further develop their BAMZOOKi intellectual property (IP), and are currently working on a stripped down version of their complex AR engine for the mobile telephony market.

I argue, however, that Broadcast AR is not the central application of AR technologies, merely an enabler for its wider applicability in other, more potent forms of media. Mobile AR offers a new channel of distribution for a variety of media forms, and it is its flexibility as a platform that could see it become a mainstream medium. Its successful deployment and reception is reliant on a number of cooperating factors; the innovation of its developers and the quality of the actual product being just part of the overall success the imminent release.

As well as their AR research, Gameware creates innovative digital games based on their Creatures AI engine. They recently produced Creebies; a digital game for Nokia Corp. Creebies is one of the first 3D games which incorporates AI for mobile phones. Gameware’s relationship with Nokia was strengthened when Nokia named them Pro-Developers. This is a title that grants Gameware a certain advantage: access to prototype mobile devices, hardware specifications, programming tools and their own Symbian operating system (Symbian OS) for mobile platforms. It was this development in combination with their experiences with BAMZOOKi and a long-standing collaboration with Cambridge University which has led to the idea for their HARVEE project. HARVEE stands for Handheld Augmented Reality Virtual Entertainment Engine.

Their product allows full 3D virtual objects to co-exist with real objects in physical space, viewed through the AR Device, which are animated, interactive and navigable, meaning the software can make changes to the objects as required, providing much space for interesting digital content. The applications of such a tool range from simple toy products; advertising outlets; tourist information or multiplayer game applications; to complex visualisations of weather movements; collaborating on engineering or architectural problems; or even implementing massive city-wide databases of knowledge where users might ‘tag’ buildings with their own graphical labels that might be useful to other AR users. There is rich potential here.

In HARVEE, Gameware attempt to surmount the limitations of current AR hardware in order to deliver the latest in interactive reality imaging to a new and potentially huge user base. Indeed, Nokia’s own market research suggests that AR-capable Smartphones will be owned by 25% of all consumers by 2009 (Nokia Research Centre Cambridge, non-public document). Mobile AR of the type HARVEE hopes to achieve represents not only a significant technical challenge, but also a potentially revolutionary step in mobile telephony technologies and the entertainment industry.

Gameware’s HARVEE project is essentially the creation of an SDK (Software Development Kit) which will allow developers to create content deliverable via their own Mobile AR applications. The SDK is written with the developer in mind, and does the difficult work of augmenting images and information related to the content. This simple yet flexible approach opens up a space for various types of AR content created at low cost for developers and end-users. I see Mobile AR’s visibility on the open market the only impediment to its success, and I believe that its simplicity of concept could see it become a participatory mass-medium of user-generated and mainstream commercial content.

What is AR and What is it Capable Of?

Presently, most AR research is concerned with live video imagery and it’s processing, which allows the addition of live-rendered 3D digital images. This new augmented reality is viewable through a suitably equipped device, which incorporates a camera, a screen and a CPU capable of running specially developed software. This software is written by specialist software programmers, with knowledge of optics, 3D-image rendering, screen design and human interfaces. The work is time consuming and difficult, but since there is little competition in this field, the rare breakthroughs that do occur are as a result of capital investment: something not willingly given to developers of such a nascent technology.

What is exciting about AR research is that once the work is done, its potential is immediately seen, since in essence it is a very simple concept. All that is required from the user is their AR device and a real world target. The target is an object in the real world environment that the software is trained to identify. Typically, these are specially designed black and white cards known as markers:

An AR marker, this one relates to a 3D model of Doctor Who's Tardis in Gameware's HARVEE kit
An AR marker, this one relates to a 3D model of Doctor Who's Tardis in Gameware's HARVEE kit

These assist the recognition software in judging viewing altitude, distance and angle. Upon identification of a marker, the software will project or superimpose a virtual object or graphical overlay above the target, which becomes viewable on the screen of the AR device. As the device moves, the digital object orients in relation to the target in real-time:

armarker2
Augmented Reality in action, multiple markers in use on the HARVEE system on a Nokia N73

The goal of some AR research is to free devices from markers, to teach AR devices to make judgements about spatial movements without fixed reference points. This is the cutting edge of AR research: markerless tracking. Most contemporary research, however, uses either marker-based or GPS information to process an environment.

Marker-based tracking is suited to local AR on a small scale, such as the Invisible Train Project (Wagner et al., 2005) in which players collaboratively keep virtual trains from colliding on a real world toy train track, making changes using their touch-screen handheld computers:

crw_80271
The Invisible Train Project (Wagner et al., 2005)

GPS tracking is best applied to large scale AR projects, such as ARQuake (Thomas et al, 2000), which exploits a scale virtual model of the University of Adelaide and a modified Quake engine to place on-campus players into a ‘first-person-shooter’. This application employs use of a headset, wearable computer, and a digital compass, which offer the effect that enemies appear to walk the corridors and ‘hide’ around corners. Players shoot with a motion-sensing arcade gun, but the overall effect is quite crude:

100-0007_img_21
ARQuake (Thomas et al, 2000)

More data input would make the game run smoother and would provide a more immersive player experience. The best applications of AR will exploit multiple data inputs, so that large-scale applications might have the precision of marker-based applications whilst remaining location-aware.

Readers of this blog will be aware that AR’s flexibility as a platform lends applicability to a huge range of fields:

  • Current academic work uses AR to treat neurological conditions: AR-enabled projections have successfully cured cockroach phobia in some patients (Botella et al., 2005);
  • There are a wide range of civic and architectural uses: Roberts et al. (2002) have developed AR software that enables engineers to observe the locations of underground pipes and wires in situ, without the need schematics
  • AR offers a potentially rich resource to the tourism industry: the Virtuoso project (Wagner et al., 2005) is a handheld computer program that guides visitors around an AR enabled gallery, providing additional aural and visual information suited to each artefact;

The first commercial work in the AR space was far more playful, however: AR development in media presentations for television has led to such primetime projects as Time Commanders (Lion TV for BBC2, 2003-2005) in which contestants oversee an AR-enabled battlefield, and strategise to defeat the opposing army, and FightBox (Bomb Productions for BBC2, 2003) in which players build avatars to compete in an AR ‘beat-em-up’ that is filmed in front of a live audience; T-Immersion (2003- ) produce interactive visual installations for theme parks and trade expositions; other work is much more simple, in one case the BBC commissioned an AR remote-control virtual Dalek meant for mobile phones, due for free download from BBC Online:

A Dalek, screenshot taken from HARVEE's development platform (work in progress)
A Dalek, screenshot taken from HARVEE's development platform (work in progress)

The next entry in this series is a case study in AR development. If you haven’t already done so, please follow me on Twitter or grab an RSS feed to be alerted when my series continues.

Addictive Interactions

Can Digital Games Create A Dependency?

Late in 2001, 21 year old Shawn Woolley shot himself to death in his apartment. He was an EverQuest addict, clocking up to twelve hours a day inside the game’s expansive online world. Shawn had epilepsy, and would often have seizures directly linked to the time spent staring at his brightly-lit computer screen, yet he would continue to play. He quit his job and he would ignore his family just to advance his character in the never-ending game.

An article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that “A psychologist diagnosed [Shawn] with depression and schizoid personality disorder, symptoms of which include a lack of desire for social relationships, little or no sex drive and a limited range of emotions in social settings.” However, these problems matter very little in a virtual world, a fact that inevitably caused Shawn to take shelter within its walls. He created a character that allowed him respite, causing his psychological issues to disintegrate each time he entered this ultimate escapist universe.

Shawn’s mother is now attempting to sue the game’s developers, claiming that Sony is directly responsible for his clinical addiction and eventual suicide. It is unknown as to the true reasons Shawn took his own life, however his mother suspects that a within-game event caused his breakdown:

“Elizabeth Woolley remembers when her son was betrayed by an EverQuest associate he had been adventuring with for six months. Shawn’s online brother-in-arms stole all the money from his character and refused to give it back. “He was so upset, he was in tears,” she said. “He was so depressed, and I was trying to say, ‘Shawn, it’s only a game.’ I said he couldn’t trust those people””

(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online, March 31st 2002)

But of course for Shawn it wasn’t only a game, it was his raison d’être. He devoted his life to play, and was in a state of immersion as deep as anyone might ever hope to achieve. Shawn was not the only one to have experienced such dependency on the online game, in fact EverQuest is referred to by certain of it’s 450,000 plus users as NeverRest or EverCrack, in reference to it’s perhaps inherently addictive qualities.

So how can a game be addictive? Digital gaming cannot be physiologically addictive in the way that opiates, caffeine or nicotine can be, because there is not a direct physical link to the gamer’s neurology. Although physical dependency to gaming cannot by its nature occur, games cannot claim to be entirely safe either:

“Psychological addictions are a dependency of the mind, and lead to psychological withdrawal symptoms. Addictions can theoretically form for any rewarding behaviour, or as a habitual means to avoid undesired activity, but typically they only do so to a clinical level in individuals who have emotional, social, or psychological dysfunctions, taking the place of normal positive stimuli not otherwise attained.”

(‘Addiction’, Wikipedia, 10 December 2005)

It is highly likely, then, that Shawn was indeed psychologically dependent on the game. But is his mother right to prosecute, given Shawn’s neurological issues? It is important to remember that although it is never the intention of a game developer to create an addicting piece of software, there is certainly the need to create a game that rewards repeat plays. This ensures that the game will be a commercial success. In the case of monthly subscription games like EverQuest it is commercially sensible that gamers remain interested for several months and pay as such. There is a great emphasis on hooking new players and keeping current players captivated. This is done by adding new and exciting content, allowing for alliances and clans to develop, and to design a never-ending game. Gamers can of course choose to exit play, but why should they when the game experience promises to get even better? A game’s success is based on how fun it is to play, not how addicting it is. The two are simply quite hard to distinguish.

There is a fundamental difference between gamers that are addicts and gamers that are just highly engaged.

The immense majority of gamers will not develop psychological addiction to digital play, but are certainly likely to experience a milder form of compulsion that keeps them playing. This is not because games are addictive, but because games can be incredibly fun. It is very hard, then, to distinguish between those that are highly engaged with a game: that is to say they are immersed; in the flow; and experiencing a reward-based benefit from continued play, and those that are psychologically addicted to a game: that is to say they are not just immersed but entrenched, not just in the flow but fully empathetic to their avatar; and whose greatest benefit of play is the gratification of their psychological dependency for yet more play.

So what happened to Shawn to get him in this state? Of course his schizophrenia played a large part in blurring the boundaries between his reality and his virtual world, but is that to say the casual gamer might never become so dangerously immersed? Could the magic circle ever wholly absorb a person? DeKoven (2002, p. 33) gives an account of Huizinga’s (1970) magic circle:

“[A] device to which we have access in order to keep the game going is the boundary that separates the game from everything else around it. Because there are boundaries, there are ways to get out of the game when you have to. Play is a voluntary act. You can’t play if you aren’t willing to. You can’t play if you feel you are obliged to. No game or toy can guarantee that it can make people play. You gotta be in the mood.”

Of course, for those that are addicted to gameplay, they are always in the mood. But then they aren’t really playing in the Huizinga sense. Gameplay must be voluntary, so for those that are playing purely to satisfy a compulsion are not really playing. Try telling that to the legions of EverCrack junkies. What are they really doing, if not playing? Salen and Zimmerman (2004, page 452) offer an account of Bolter and Grusin’s (1999) remediation theory that may help us understand the true mind state of the immersed player:

“Media operate according to a double logic. On one hand, media participate in… immediacy, the ability to authentically reproduce the world and create an alternative reality. At the same time, media also remind their audiences that they are constructed and artificial, a characteristic that Bolter and Grusin call hypermediacy… All media combine these two processes into what they term remediation, an experience of media in which immediacy and hypermediacy co-exist”

So the immersed player experiences the game in a state of remediation: aware that they are playing, yet suitably attached to a game not to disrupt the magic circle. These EverCrack junkies know they are playing, because they experience hypermediacy. An addicted player might experience a game purely as immediacy, where his life within the game unfolds as his reality. If this were true, then a game can never be accused of forcing an addiction, rather the onus is on the player to continually perceive gameplay in remediation. Players like Shawn that have trouble distinguishing truth from fiction are therefore more prone to psychological addiction. It can be suggested that the boundaries between reality and the game world suddenly dissolve when both the gamer’s propensity for addiction and the amount of gratification meet midway. That is not to say developers should hold back on making their games less rewarding, or better than reality, but perhaps that games should have better warnings for those who are less conscious of themselves as players.

Game ‘addiction’ is a relatively new thing. Before the invention of the home computer, and later the console, there really wasn’t much to be done on one’s own. Before interactivity there was just ‘activity’: reading; watching television or films; one-way communication with an entertainment medium. Then came the technology that changed ‘alone-time’ forever, in the process giving those anti-social types an excuse not to go outside and play with the other boys. The hardcore gamer was born, and with them new worries of digital addiction and stories of mind-numbing, brain-washing and the dumbing-down of the youth generation. Hardcore players are more likely to report their full engagement with a game, sometimes to the point of their realities shifting and their emotional drives realigning to the needs of their virtual representatives within a game.

What we see in the behaviours of hardcore gamers is not addiction, but engagement. Digital games are not addictive, although players may show characteristics of a dependency on them. Games are built around one core concept: ‘What would be fun for the player?’ As games get better and more realistic, it becomes easier to forget that we are really playing at all. The magic circle must be reinforced if it stands a chance of surviving intact against the next generation of ultra-immersive games. Gamers can only be protected from psychological addiction to these games if the notion that they are ‘just playing’ is constantly reinforced. A player’s double-consciousness should actually make play more fun, because the magic circle can remain unbroken. Developers would do well to remember that games are supposed to be fun, and the easier they make it to retain a lusory attitude, the more people will realise games are a safe medium after all. Developers are dependent on a good reception, and if they play things right, there won’t be any more blood on the keyboard.

1593 words

Bibliography

Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

DeKoven, Bernie (2002). The Well-Played Game: A Playful Path to Wholeness. 3rd edn. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club. Retrieved 11th November 2005 from http://www.deepfun.com/WPG.pdf

Huizinga, Johan (1970). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. London: Temple Smith

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online (March 31st 2002). “Death of a Game Addict” Retrieved 13/12/05 from http://www.jsonline.com/news

Salen, Katie and Zimmerman, Eric (2004). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT

Wikipedia (December 10th 2005) “Addiction” Retrieved 13/12/05, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Addiction

Further Reading
Poole, Steven (2000). Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution. New York: Arcade

Sutton-Smith, Brian (2001). The Ambiguity of Play. Boston: Harvard University Press