Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Eyetoy

I got to play with an Eyetoy (warning: irritatingly Flashy site) over Thanksgiving. For those without the patience to sit through Flash, it's a peripheral for the Playstation 2 that uses a camera to image you, and places you on the screen, interacting with the graphical elements, such as baddies. It's a load of fun, or at least it was for an hour or so, playing the fairly ditzy games that come with it. It's a brilliant idea and reasonably well implemented, and should give pause to the school of thought that worries that kids sitting in front of their PS2 aren't getting enough exercise. Of course, it awaits a real game that uses it, or a mod that can run the Eyetoy interface at the same time as a standard game, with some set of motions transforming into the standard two-hand controller.

For larger reasons, it's an interesting interface. It's not really virtual reality - you're still watching the action on the same screen as before. But it's not quite just another input device; your actions are being directly transferred into the virtual world. I saw a video game once in an arcade. It was a kung-fu fighting game, and, like the Eyetoy, the input device was your body, watched by a camera. To punch, you moved your hand forward; to advance, you moved your foot forward, etc. But it wasn't exactly the same, because there was a translation. A small move forward of your hand translated into a dramatic punch by your virtual avatar. With Eyetoy, your actions are identical on the screen, and in a more immediate and real sense, that's "you" up there.

Virtual reality has been a hit in the movies for decades, but still struggles as an actual technology. One reason may be that it holds so closely to the central architecture of a surrounding world that encompasses your actions. But the potential vocabulary of physical actions, animated responses, and interfaces can be much richer than that, and, as the Eyetoy proves, there are other points in the design space worth exploring.