Hands Free Arcade at Saratoga First Night

by Mary Martialay on December 5, 2011

Broken Breakout from lawson shawn on Vimeo.

Word recently reached the street that Rensselaer is making a contribution to Saratoga First Night 2012 in signature techie style with the “Hands-off Arcade,” a collection of retro games retooled for the Microsoft Kinect gaming hardware. Shawn Lawson, an associate professor of arts and faculty member in the Rensselaer Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program, said all the games will obey the hands-free theme:

There’s no remote, no joystick, no nothing. It’s just the person the body, hands free interactive games experiences.

Lawson and collaborators Ben Chang (associate professor of arts and GSAS co-director) and Silvia Ruzanka, artist and RPI lecturer, debuted one of the games – Broken Breakout – during the Gamefest, the annual showcase of student-designed games hosted at Rensselaer. The game is a Kinect twist on the classic “Breakout.” That’s a video of Broken Breakout at the top of this post. Here’s how it’s explained by its creators:

While the interface for the original game consisted of a small knob, here one plays through the movement of the whole body. Cascading balls pour out of the bricks, as they are broken, filling up the screen and quickly overwhelming the original rules and purpose of the game. New interactions emerge as the player wades through the piles of rainbow-hued debris, scooping and pushing masses around.

Curious about how you build a video game, I asked Lawson a little bit about went into the process. In the case of the Hands-off Arcade, Lawson said the process is part creation and part integration.

We come up with the idea – how the game will work, how it will look, how it will sound, how it will interact with Kinect – that’s all built from scratch. But a lot of the things that we use aren’t build from scratch – the graphics drawing engine, the physics engine, OpenNI and NITE (a natural user interfaces)- all of these components are open source drivers and libraries that we use as pieces in a game that we design.

In other words, the vision for the game is creation, but the mechanics integrates existing software drivers and libraries – packaged sections of computer code that are available for all the world to use in performing specific tasks.

For example, the games employ a “physics engine” which is a section of software that determines how virtual objects will interact (when a ball collides with an object, will it bounce away, or break the object into pieces?). Similarly a “graphics engine” allows the designers to input information about graphic elements.

Our graphics Engine – OpenGL – talks directly to the hardware of the graphics card. When you say, ‘I need to draw a polygon here,’ you say ‘here’s the information about a polygon, these are the locations for the vertices, this is the style, this is the texture, here’s where the camera is, focal length of the camera, go draw this for me and put it here on the screen.’

The team have one other game  – Missle Command – in the bag, and are working on a few others. One game they are building, at the request of the Saratoga Arts, is a spinoff of a website interface “B-Flat.” The original website interface allowed users to mix video snippets of performances in the key of b-flat major to create an entirely new composition. The new version “B-Flat 2.0,” will fit the hands-free theme.

Lawson said the team hope the games they are creating for Hands-off Arcade are “as much art project as video game.”

They’re kind of subversive in that we’re not really adhering to cannonical game play and themes: there’s no high score list, there’s no saving the princess. We’re sort of using a gaming format to explore ideas, artistic themes, or finding out what you can do.

The end result may not appeal to hard-core gamers, but it does have the makings of a good time on a fun night.

Having watched a lot of people play these things, they kind of understand that this is just here to be an experience – there’s no anxiety of ‘I’m terrible at this game,’ because you can’t really win, you can’t really lose. … It’s just to play and have fun.