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Joystiq hands-on: HP's mscape

Zack Stern

HP showed off several of its gaming research and development projects at a recent San Francisco media event. The company said that many of these technologies had been in progress before the VoodooPC acquisition, but Rahul Sood and other VoodooPC leaders were able to see the gaming applications of previous research.

I spent some time trying mscape ("mediascape") and discussing the project with some of its engineers. This gaming platform -- which isn't meant to compete with a hardware-and-software solution like the DS or PSP -- has already been used in the real world, unlike most of the in-progress projects demonstrated.

Mscape sits on a PocketPC or other device, presenting an augmented reality game space. Other game designers and companies have tried to bridge the virtual world and the real world, with games that are played on devices by moving around outside. But HP's muscle may eventually help push these new experiences to mainstream gamers.

Before I tried the game demo, HP showed a concept video of what the engineers hope to achieve; an mscape-equipped device with a camera will operate like the glasses in They Live, tweaking the real-world with superimposed effects. Examples from the video include a player dodging an in-game boulder or leaping over a virtually crumbling street.

Philip McKinney, a VP who works in the game group, said that mscape is still about two years away from that level of play -- real-time animation over real-world video -- but currently supports a variety of sensors. 'Ere Be Dragons, a project that was most recently played during GDC, relied on a GPS sensor and heart monitor.

Players ran though the streets of San Francisco, claiming territory on a map displayed on the game screen. They secured the most territory when keeping their heart rate at an optimal level, like 110 beats-per-minute, while other players tried to scoop up previously claimed areas with the same method. Additionally, mscape is currently part of a Tower of London tour-and-game, where players try to free in-game prisoners while avoiding real-world Beefeaters. Players are captured if they get too close to a Beefeater's RFID sensor.

My mscape demo game was on a considerably smaller scale, just to show the basic idea of the device. I walked between several IR emitters (pictured) that had been placed throughout the room, pointing the PocketPC in their direction. When the device sensed a beacon, it advanced the narrative about exploration and trade.

Admittedly, I grew bored of the demo quickly, especially after the splashy video showing the future of the mscape platform. But I left with interest for mscape projects; augmented reality titles could change the idea of videogames, making something completely new from the mixture of analog and digital.

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