Sony’s about to take a huge leap forward in motion control. This fall it will roll out the PlayStation Move, a wand-shaped motion controller that works in conjunction with a video camera (PlayStation Eye) tracking its position in space. The result is a highly precise, richly functional, and broadly accessible platform for human-computer interaction on PlayStation 3 (a great demo video is available here). The new device builds upon on ten years of research that also produced the EyeToy, an earlier motion control product that used only a video camera. I recently spoke with the inventor of both products, Dr. Richard Marks, Senior Researcher at Sony Computer Entertainment.
Would you call yourself a user interface designer?
Yes, although it’s taken me a long time to describe myself in those terms. Traditionally I identified myself as an engineer or programmer. And anyway, I would describe it more as a user experience designer. My job is to come up with new experiences and see how they can be made into reality.
What does your team do at Sony?
Our charter is two-fold: To improve the existing experience, and to grow the entire market. That’s not necessarily just your share; we also want to bring in people who don’t traditionally play games.
What are some of the challenges of bringing in people who haven’t played a lot of games in the past?
A lot of people are intimidated by the controllers on modern game consoles, which in PlayStation 3’s case has two analog sticks and fifteen buttons. You think about the old Atari 2600, which had just one stick and one button, and that made it accessible to a lot of people. Fifteen is a whole lot more, and the average person who isn’t a gamer feels like they can’t possibly compete and don’t even want to try. Many people also don’t have super-fine physical dexterity and it’s difficult for them to move a very small amount, as required by many games. So while we find that the medium of video games appeals to a lot of these people, they’re just not very good at interacting in it.
That’s one of the great advantages of motion control. Back in 2001 we made a demo with a camera tracking colored ball on a stick, and onscreen it projected a character over the ball. I had my 3-year-old son try it out, and he instantly understood that wherever you move the stick the character would also move. Even a 3-year-old can understand that, while using a controller or joystick to do the same thing would be completely beyond him.
What were some of the lessons you learned from your experience developing the EyeToy?
Something that was lost with EyeToy was a sense of accuracy. Once in a while you want that. The EyeToy could only register broad, coarse body movements, and its reliability would vary with the lighting conditions in the room. So the Move has a glowing sphere on the end of it, which the camera can track to within a tenth of a pixel. The PS3 system knows exactly where the PlayStation Move controller is in the room with great accuracy.
One of the mantras of the EyeToy was that there were no buttons. We could have had people using the PlayStation 2 controllers with the games, but instead we chose to just rely upon the person’s physical movement in the room. I think that was a good discipline for us to work within and resulted in some really unique game experiences, but we came to realize that it went too far. It was very difficult to do things like navigating menus. You could only do that by waving your hands repeatedly over menu items to select them, then wave at another message to confirm that was really what you wanted to select. And while it was neat that you could work that way, it wasn’t a great interface. A button is very fast, very reliable, and very abstract — you can map it to anything you want.
Tell me about the physical design of the Move controller.
Well it’s different from the Wii, which used a remote control paradigm. With the Move, it’ll be more like you’re holding a physical object that has a handle. It’s designed so that it tapers in the middle then flares back out at the base, kind of like an axe handle. That creates an ergonomic advantage as well, because a smaller hand will naturally grip it at the thinner point while a larger hand will grip it further down, and in both cases that positions the thumb right above the button.
There’s also an analog button on the back that’s called the “T-button” and is used in some games like a trigger, but I prefer to think of it as a squeezer. It has a fairly long throw so you can control something really well just by squeezing, and that makes it feel very natural for grabbing and manipulating objects.
Do you think that a device like the Move has applicability beyond gaming?
Definitely. One of our favorite uses for the Move besides gaming is creating user-generated content. Just as a creation tool, it provides a lot more capability than anything we ever had before. We actually wrote a driver to send the data from the PS3 to a PC so our artists could use it in Maya, which is an animation suite they use to design games. Often in Maya you have to move things around and look at them from different angles and distances, which normally takes expert knowledge to understand the indirect controls. Using the Move, it’s amazing how fast you can operate it. People are surprisingly good at positioning two controllers relative to one another. You can carve, extrude, lathe, grab points in a wire mesh — it all feels very natural.
Fifteen years from now, how do you think people will be interacting with computers?
That’s such a difficult question. A lot of people say we’ll be controlling computers just through brainwaves in the future, but I don’t really believe that. In my opinion, people want to use both their bodies and their brains. There’s a somatic gratification you get when your whole body is involved in an interaction. Playing the drums in Rock Band is really gratifying, because your body’s really taking part in it. That’s also a big part of the appeal behind touchscreens, because touching something directly is more gratifying than just clicking a mouse.
I think the future is in interfaces that people enjoy using more. Where the mechanic is fun, or if not fun at least pleasing. Things have actually been going that way for a while, when you think about it. PC gaming, where you have to sit rigidly at a desk, has become less popular than console gaming, where you’re reclined and relaxed.
Thanks so much for your time.
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