When your ‘second life’ comes first

by Gautam Raja

It’s here. Technology that makes us look like complete lunatics in our living rooms. Sure, exercise DVDs might be in the region, but for sheer random madness you need to watch people play games on controller-free gaming systems.

In the heat of it though, these games are so much fun and so immersive that you soon stop caring, as we found when a group of us met for a “Kinect party”. The technology was new to all of us, even the two young children, and pretty soon all age differences melted away as we danced, jumped, ran and kicked in front of the television.

We were amazed by how well the system performed; people were sensed with no trouble, and it picked out all body movements even against the background of a regular living room. The Kinect is actually a perfect party game—there are no controllers to assign, no worry about getting oil or salt from the snacks onto buttons, and no confusion about whose controller is whose. You just stand in front of the television, raise your hand, and go. (We also found it all a little eerie.)

Game selection is pretty limited right now, but there are some pretty amazing glimpses of the near future out there. Because it has to detect movement, the controller analyses the scene in front of it in 3D, using projected infrared. Within hours of its release, the device was hacked, and programmers started putting it to their own uses. One person has shown how you can use it to view yourself (in real time) from multiple angles, even though there’s only one camera. Of course, the camera can’t see the back of your head if you’re facing it, but he is experimenting with two or more Kinects connected together, giving you the ability to pan around your living room and see all sides of the objects in it.

Other programmers have connected Kinects to their computer OS’s, using body movements to zoom in and out of images, and picking up and dropping things on the screen just by waving their hands in the air. The movie Minority Report gets mentioned a lot in this context.

When applied to cameras, this technology could completely change television, especially sports watching. You could watch a match from an infinite number of viewpoints, as well as have all kinds of analysis applied. You could ask to have all the ball trajectories displayed, or view a map of your favourite player’s steps, or block out the background and watch only the players, or certain players. You could even put yourself into the game and run along with the teams, looking around you as you go, or replay the game later with you in it. Gradually, the line between watching TV and being on TV will get more permeable as you attend concerts and take part in game shows and quizzes, all without leaving your living room.

At one point during the Kinect party, I took the floor with the younger child. I towered a good five feet over him, but he proceeded to wipe the floor with me at a boxing bout, knocking me out twice even as I got hardly any blows in. And I didn’t even have the standard excuse of kids being better with game controllers. I looked at him and thought, with a bit of a shiver, that he’d never known life without the internet, and that his son would probably take the vision of the future I’ve just described for granted. “Television that you just sat and watched? How did you live?”

First published in Gulf News, May 31, 2011