Friday, January 8, 2010

Project Natal and jumping the Fourth Wall

Video Games loom over other forms of entertainment in a significant way, they are much less bound by the fourth wall – the distance between the actors and the audience. Though most video games have grandiose themes - where players typically command gargantuan armies and civilizations, create cities, wield cutting edge weaponry, perform cool stunts beyond the Matrix, or rock the bejesus out of thousands of screaming fans – their success largely depends on how much can they engage and immerse the player. Video game designers employ many techniques to this end – from improving the realism of animation effects, to using atmospheric sounds, to incorporating engaging, emotional storylines with top notch voice acting (like David Hayter’s gravelly Solid Snake in the Metal Gear series).

The Wii commercialized a revolutionary idea of engaging the audience, letting them control the

character on screen through physical gestures instead of mashing buttons on a controller. However, players still depended on a “Wii-mote” to communicate with the console, and hence the range of motions was limited to simplistic arm gestures. Microsoft’s Project Natal is a bold new step forward in immersing the player physically into the game world.

The technology behind the Natal relies on a simple monochrome camera to capture a player’s motions. Though not as advanced as the motion-capture cameras used by films, it claims to reflect most player actions within 10 milliseconds and to recognize any object introduced before the camera within 160 ms. A 3d projector captures the player’s body motion, without any needs for sensors or physical attachments, The motion is compared to a database of human physiology to determine the movement and translate that onto the screen action. IGN has posted an interesting video presentation from the Consumer Electronics Show which can be seen here.

The implications of the technology are immense. It could be an engaging, fun solution to couch potatos’ weight woes and bring fitness into the living room. It could be employed to operate computers and other devices via gestures. It is a step forward in technology’s transition towards gesture and voice driven operations, reminiscent of Pranav Mistry’s exciting TED talk. Gaming is in for exciting times ahead.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

College Champions of 2009

Early in summer, I heard from my MBA friends on how exciting the remaining year was going to be, once the gators start their defensive campaign of our football title. At that time, they were excited about a game i did not understand, and a team whom i was only begining to feel kinship towards. The football season started and i learnt and understood the strange game and our decorated team better, often at the expense of my MBA friends' viewing pleasure, who patiently explained the basics of the game in the middle of exciting moments. But i learnt, and i enjoyed every contest more and more. We were invincible in the Swamp, our state-of-the-art stadium - "Where only gators get out alive". We had been unbeaten here for a long long time, and though we had scares in one game during the season, that record was never really under threat. The Gators finished their season unbeaten. So did Alabama and Texas, and the other conferences came to a close. The showdowns were imminent.

A month before our SEC final, i read an article in Sports Illustrated that moved me. It had to do with a tough junior with a big heart who had grown up in the shadow of his father and loved him. That father was in prison, the kid would understandably have had emotional difficulties to cope with. Yet, he continued to rush headlong through fearsome, intense defences towards end zone salvation. He had the speed of a panther, the agility of a gazelle, the toughness of a rhino and the focus and will of a champion. And at the end, it was that will, above all else that led him to rewrite college football history at its greatest stage.

Mark Ingram Jr became the first player from the hallowed University of Alabama footballing tradition to win the Heisman, the pinnacle of achievement for an athlete in college football. He rose to the trophy on the wave he had unleashed against our Florida team, tearing through our defenses, unstoppable. It was both fearsome and beautiful to watch him in action (check youtube for clips). But that game only set the stage for a bigger clash. A clash in which he became only the second player in college history to win the Heisman and the championship in the same year.

Fittingly, the finals of the BCS championship, played out before 94000 fans in Pasadena, California, was a titanic struggle of muscle and will between the top two teams in the country, the Texas Longhorns and the Crimson Tide.

The Longhorns were handicapped early when their Heisman probable, Colt McCoy injured his shoulder and was sidelined. Yet they fought furiously, riding on a seemingly impregnable defense. McElroy, who was toying with Florida's defenses was sacked again and again and seemed clueless. However, the Alabama defense fought fire with fire, snatching initiatives away from the Texas offense. The first half advantage enjoyed by the Crimson Tide was reduced to a 3 point lead, thanks to two superb passes by Texas' freshman QB. Yet it was a sack on him, Garett Gilbert, that sealed Texas' fate late in the fourth quarter. The ball flew out of his hand, and the Alabama defense pounced on it for a turnover on the field goal line. Mark Ingram, out with a cramp and injured calves, returned to the fray. He went down the first time. On second down, he made an incredible scramble to the end zone and put Alabama up for good. 31-21. Game Over Texas. The Tide had swept the valiant Longhorns.

It was an unforgettable contest and has left me looking forward to next year's bowls.