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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?

Robotics.

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)

BITS & BYTES: Oculus 3D has developed biodegradable 3D glasses and will both linear- and circular-polarized models. Oculus CEO Marty Shindler told Variety the resin used for the frames is less than 0.1% petroleum. Cereplast, which supplies the resin, claims every 10 million pairs of biodegradable glasses used in place of plastic glasses would reduce CO2 emissions by 517,000 metric tons, the equivalent of taking 120 passenger cars off the road for an entire year. … The NAB Show will sponsor the Hollywood Post Alliance Engineering Excellence Award and spotlight HPA Winners in the Post Pit at the 2011 NAB Show, April 11-14. … According to the Digital Entertainment Group, 36 3D Blu-ray titles will be available through the end of 2010, with “dozens more” coming in 2011. … Global Digital Media Xchange, a Warner Bros. Entertainment subsidiary, has struck a licensing deal with Jargon Technologies with the aim of developing Blu-ray Disc Java applications for interactive BD titles. Jargon will write the Java code and GDMX will test the software … ESPN 3D has added the Jan 1. Tostitos Fiesta Bowl to its schedule. Other major college football games on the stereoscopic net’s sked include the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 4 and the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game on Jan 10 … Sensio Technologies and MediaTek are teaming up to put Sensio 3D technology on MediaTek’s system-on-chip products for the 3D TV market. Sensio 3D is a proprietary format for stereoscopic signal processing. …

The NAB Show and the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation will present a workshop Dec. 1, Mastering the Transition to Digital on the challenges of the digital TV transition and how it relates to government professionals. Presenters include CBS’ VP of engineering and advanced technology, Bob Seidel; Jim Kutzer, chief enginner for PBS; and Gary Nadler, general manager of telecommunications and afffiliate services for ABS. Event will be held at NAB’s Washington DC HQ … The Giant Screen Cinema Assn. has released guidelines for theaters aiming to be certified giant screens. Among the guidelines: Screens must be at least 70 feet wide, or have at least 3100 sq. ft. or 298 sq. meters. Theaters meeting the guidelines will receive a marketing toolkit including logos and taglines for promotions. Imax is heavily represented in the GSCA but other orgs and companies are members as well. … The recent SMPTE conference in Hollywood saw the first DLP 4K feature film screening: The restored “North by Northwest.” Presentation screened on a Christie Solaria CP4230 projector. Pic was restored by Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging … Dreamworks Animation has joined the growing list of major visual effects and animation companies settling on Nuke as their compositing software. DWA will incorporate Nuke into its pipeline in 2012 … The Foundry, distributor of Nuke, has released its MARI texture painting software on Windows. … E-on Software has released Vue 9 for CG artists and enthusiasts … Pixeldust Studios of Bethesda, Md., created animated sequences in National Geographic’s “Great Migrations.” … Live-event production company Trio Video Chicago has added a high-definition OB production truck monickered “Tempo” to its fleet. Tempo has been outfitted with Grass Valley audio and video distribution gear … Pauley Perrette of CBS’ “NCIS” is working with the Entertainment Industries Council to promote engineering careers among young people.

david.cohen@variety.com

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