MIT Media Lab builds game space of the future

The robots are ready to entertain you

I want to say one word to you about the future of entertainment.

Are you listening?


Because after a visit the MIT Media Lab and a look at the Personal Robots Group’s Playtime Computing project, I think I’ve seen the future of gaming.

Playtime Computing combines computer graphics projected on a wall and floor, motion-capture sensors and a robot to let children (it’s build for kids for now) interact with characters that move between the projection screens and the physical world.

Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group, oversees Playtime Computing. Among the research assistants on the project is Side Effects Software alum David Robert.

“(We) model the story world with one reality, where the story has a seamless continuation into the world of the child, right into the living room, right into the school,” she said. “So it’s really modeled as unified reality of physical and virtual playtime.”

Breazeal speaks with the rapid-fire cadence of someone whose brain works so fast language must struggle to keep up.

To fully explain Playtime Computing, she stepped into the playtime space and interacted with a CG character, “Alphie” (short for AlphaBot), that looks like an oversized building block. Then Alphie emerged through a small door as a self-propelled robot.

“It is a character of this story world that can transcend the physical and virtual worlds,” Breazeal said.

She then interacts with the robot, using simple tools suitable for a child. She can attach symbols to it, and the symbols have RFID (radio-frequency identification tags) that Alphie can sense. They imbue it with different abilities when it returns to the CG world.

“A lot of children’s media is prepared for you. You watch it, you consume it, you don’t co-create it,” said Breazeal, adding that her own kids absolutely love the thing.

“Another aspect of this project,” she said, “is about allowing kids to co-create the world, the artistic elements, to author behavior of elements in this world.” In other words, the child (or gamer) helps create the story rather than passively sitting through a story created by others.

Playtime Computing isn’t exactly an incipient product and Media Lab isn’t really in the business of developing commercial products. However, its work is feeding the consumer electronics and entertainment industries. The technology underlying “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band,” for example, was nurtured in another group at the Media Lab.

These days, a lot of work at the lab is building on a larger trend: Instead of people adapting to computers by learning to type on a keyboard or use a game controller, computers are adapting to computers by learning to read natural movements, whether on an iPad touchscreen or with a Wii or a Kinect.

Games have already evolved from the video/computer screen to Wii games to the even more physical activities of the Kinect and its ilk. There’s no word yet for games with robots: Hypergames, perhaps? But Playtime Computing shows that it’s only a matter of time before robots come to consumer games.

“This is a very new space,” said Breazeal. “It’s motivated by the reality that TVs are Internet-enabled now. Toys are Internet enabled. 3D motion-capture is coming into people’s homes. … Projectors are coming down in price. I mean, all of this stuff is happening right now. So if you start bringing it together and start thinking really hard about what kind of experiences would you really want to offer with these new technical convergences, what would that be? That’s really what this space is exploring.”

“We love to start it with kids,” she added, “because kids really get it. But if we can get it with kids, we can get it with anyone.”

Watch Cynthia Breazeal Demo Playtime Computing (Video)

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