Enter the maze

Video game heros

by Yekaterina Rudenko, Undergraduate at Queen Mary University of London

A ball of eyes rolling over a digital world: copyright istock.com 25929770

Have you ever dreamed of breaking the boundaries between the real world and virtual reality to fight armies of droids or cast spells in the world of Harry Potter? If so, then you'll be pleased to hear that it is no longer a fantasy, thanks to powerful devices like Microsoft Kinect. This little black box has an amazing power to turn your body into a controller and let you step through the screen into the game world. But what at first glance seems like magic is actually a brilliant combination of hardware and software.

Although Kinect looks like an ordinary web camera, it is much smarter. It has excellent vision, thanks to a little trick: the room in which you play is illuminated with infrared light. It is completely invisible and therefore does not distract you from what is happening on the screen. This infrared laser projector, located inside one of the two depth sensors, creates a grid of dots so that the “eyes” of Kinect can see you in 3D regardless of the lighting in the room, if you decided to have yet another gaming session after midnight. Moreover, depth sensors help to separate you, the player, from the sofa, table or your dog that do not participate in the game. You are being watched by one more eye: a VGA (Video Graphics Array) camera. Its job is simple: to record your image in colour at high speed so not even a slight movement of your body is missed. Kineсt has another trick up its sleeve. It can hear perfectly too, with four microphones that are able to distinguish a human voice from background noise. Not only that, the device can move its "head" so it can find you if you suddenly disappear from view.

While Kinect is closely watching and listening to you, all that sensor-read data is sent to “the brain", which turns you into a virtual character with the help of breakthrough software. It’s this software that builds your digital image, recognizing the different body parts and building your hypothetical skeleton, guessing where the muscles and joints are. This is possible due to the millions of body shapes, facial features and clothing options embedded in the device’s memory. That all allows it to really accurately work out your structure and individual traits. Thereafter, Kinect’s “brain” analyses your movements about 30 times a second, determining how to react to the position of your body at a given time to reflect it in the virtual space. It treats every single move, even a tiny motion as an input. All those inputs are compared to its knowledge of the gestures of people in the real life scenarios. But the software not only evaluates you: it also memorizes you and learns to understand your body language and emotions. Kineсt uses this newly acquired knowledge to recognize and distinguish between players and anticipate their movements, in case something gets out of its watchful eyes. All this coordinated work from all the components of the device allows you to experience complete immersion into the gameplay.

Of course, despite the tremendous possibilities of the Kinect, players still argue about how convenient it is. Driving a virtual racing car with both hands firmly on a steering wheel controller can give a far better experience than clumsily rotating your arms in the air. Like all technology you have to use it for the right situations. Nevertheless, people are using Kinect in ways other than for games, like as a powerful sensor for robots, to help physiotherapists check the way people are doing exercises remotely, to help a stroke victim, remote surgery, and so on. Perhaps you have ideas that can take the Kinect beyond the entertainment industry too and apply it in some unexpected way? If you do, you will have a chance to become not only video game hero, but a real life hero.