Sunday, December 19, 2010

Video Game Technology

The holiday season is upon us, and we sometimes associate this period of time with gifts.  As a kid, the gift I received with the highest frequency was probably video games.

I remember my sixth birthday fairly well.  Nintendo had released its first gaming console at some point that year: “The Nintendo Entertainment System”.  I was lucky enough to get one for my birthday, along with the first edition of “Mario Bros”.  Two Italian plumbers took turns eating mushrooms, battling goombas, travelling through pipes, and leaping over crevices, all to the soundtrack of some of the most psychedelic music ever produced to date.  I would love to have been in the boardroom when the makers of this first adventure video game were proposing their vision for it.  They must have been very creative and very high.

Although the game was interesting, my family one generation older than I was more absorbed in the game than I was.  I took advantage of their immersion in the game to slip outside the den and into the kitchen, where delicious “Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies” were hidden in the fridge.  My parents and their parents took turns trying to leap over the first crevice as Mario and then Luigi, with limited success.  It was as though their entire body was attempting to leap over that gap in the surface.  They eventually gave up.  Ten years later, my father and grandfather raced one another in “MarioKart” with verbal coaching from my brother and I.  Both racers, excellent drivers in real life, could not manage to stay on the virtual road.

Some of the baby boomers got the hang of video games, but most left them for the next generation to enjoy; and enjoy they certainly did.  I vividly remember my eight-year-old self staring at the real paper map corresponding to the world of “The Legend of Zelda” deciding what virtual move to make next, so utterly immersed that I drooled on the map.  As a teenager, I spent many a sleepover staying up late with friends trying to navigate through proximity bomb-laced hallways in “James Bond”, to the point that I inspected the actual hallway in my home carefully the next morning.  In my twenties - and this is embarrassing to admit - I stayed up all night with five friends playing “Halo” in what we called “Halo-fests”.  On the actual drive home the next morning, in the back of the car, I was looking for the turret gun that I expected to have within reach.

Yes, I have wasted countless hours playing video games.  I would still be playing them today if I were not inundated with other admittedly more important responsibilities.  I still have nostalgic moments with regards to video gaming; I attribute these feelings to withdrawal.

In the early 2000s, I travelled with my brother and parents to Chicago for a short family vacation.  Although I am the only “nerd” in the family, we visited the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.  To this day, this is easily the best museum I have ever been to.  From the fantastic hands-on exhibits, to the actual U-505 Submarine tour, I was ready to move in.  There was a special exhibit open at the time, entitled, “The History and Future of Video Gaming”.  We intended to take a twenty-minute stroll past the various video game consoles.  About an hour later, my brother and I had to rip our dad away from the “Pac-Man” arcade only to have him rip us away from “Sonic the Hedgehog” an hour after that.  Video games are wonderful, but can be dangerously addictive.

As interesting as the addictive property of video gaming is, the nostalgic property is equally provocative.  Although the entire spectrum of video games from “Pong” to virtual reality was available for play in the museum exhibit, everyone seemed to gravitate towards the games offering the most nostalgia.

The video games of today are nothing short of astonishing.  The quality of the graphics and the sound has improved to the point where a TV passer-by could easily think that an actual hockey game was taking place, when in fact it was simply “NHL 2011” on Playstation 3.  What has caught my attention even more is the accurate real-time physics on display, particularly in first-player shooters like Halo.

Newton’s Laws are observed in Halo, which is set on a planet with a lower surface gravity than that of Earth.  When two cars collide in mid-air, I am amazed at how realistic the motion is.  An angular impulse due to the collision actually causes the cars to spin about their respective centers of mass, all while basic projectile motion kinematics are carried out.  The car’s suspension system is evident as the car oscillates twice upon its landing.

The real-time physics is more impressive than you may think.  The laws of motion for any structure are governed by differential equations, which can be solved numerically with good accuracy.  For the action on the screen to look realistic, these equations must be solved with a negligible time delay.  There exists dynamics software such as ADAMS, which is designed specifically to create animations that follow the laws of physics.  ADAMS is not nearly as fast as the XBox 360 when it comes to solving these equations.

Of course, the internet has added a compelling dimension to gaming.  Online gaming allows one to play against or along with real, living adversaries any time of the day.  You can even talk to them in real-time using fancy headsets.  Another technology that will add dimension to gaming is the ability for televisions to emit three-dimensional imagery.  Before long, the majority of video games will take advantage of the realism that this offers.

More important however than the look of the games, or who in the world you are playing is the method of control.  The Nintendo Wii pushed the envelope when it introduced motion capture a few of years ago.  However, Microsoft is now taking this to the next level.  The XBox 360 can now be played with a “Kinect” feature.  Where the Wii forced a player to hold a controller, and sensed the motion of the controller, Kinect requires no controller at all.  A motion-sensing video camera is placed on the television, and it watches the players, whose real-life motion serve as inputs to virtual outputs on the screen.  For example, in a boxing match, opponents could stand three feet apart punching the air in front of them, and making dodging motions.  The action on the screen would show two boxers in a bloody battle.
Motion capture is certainly the future of video gaming.  The goal of the video game has always been to immerse players in a virtual world, in as deep a way as technology permits.  Newer tools will continue to lead to a deeper, more vivid experience.  So, what is coming next?  I have a suspicion that we will see something completely new in about five years.  I suspect that rather than 3D images emanating from flat screens, we will have 3D projectors, which project holographic images in a real, confined, cubic space, say four feet in length, width, and height.  When playing Zelda with this setup, one could walk, in reality, 90 degrees around the projection to see what is behind the wall that currently stands in front, blocking one’s view.  This technology would only work in an otherwise dark room, and a lot of power would be required to run it, given quantity of light that would be involved.  It would be fun to procure this when it comes out, and I hope to play it with my daughter one day, while we gorge ourselves with chocolate-chip cookies.      

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