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Sun, Dec 26, 2004 - Page 12 News List

EyeToy makes it possible for everyone to play video games

There's no buttons to press as the human body is the interface in games using the EyeToy device, meaning that within five minutes even beginners can play

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The tiny kung-fu fighters are attacking again. Fortunately, my best mate's gran has seen them and is merrily swatting them away with her hands, her hairdo and a teaspoon. Five minutes ago, she had never played a computer game. Now she's just beaten my high score.

It takes a lot to shock a room full of games developers, but Richard Marks did just that in 1999 with his creation, EyeToy. When he stepped up to the stage at the Sony Europe developer conference, the main screen was filled with asterisks. He stood in front of a camera and calmly wiped them all away with his hand. The room fell silent.

"We all looked at each other and said `which one of us is going to develop this?'" remembers Mike Haigh, now EyeToy development director. The group that got the chance was Sony Camden, which later became part of Sony London Studios. Marks, an American who built cameras for underwater robots, moved to the UK and started working with Sony Camden on the technology.

The standard PlayStation 2 (PS2) controller has 15 buttons. The Xbox has 11. The EyeToy has none. It is a small camera that, once plugged into a PS2, displays on the screen an image of you surrounded by bright computer graphics. Buttons on the screen are pressed by waving your hands over them.

Everything works exactly how it would in the real world -- at least, how it would if you were as flat as the TV screen. Dirty windows can be wiped clean. Bubbles can be burst with your finger. A ball can be kept in the air with your head (or your elbow, or your tongue).

For perhaps the first time in the history of computing, things behave exactly as they should. There is no interface gap -- no character represents you, because there you are on the screen, waving your arms and moving things in front of you. No instruction manual.

Just plug in and start to play. And it makes a great party game.

"It involves a very natural interface -- body movement," said Gonzalo Frasca, a researcher in computer games at the IT University of Copenhagen. "So even people who have never played computer games feel they can give it a try. EyeToy did to my wife what seven years of marriage to a videogame researcher could not: get her into videogames."

The first EyeToy game, Play, came out in winter last year and was an instant success. Unusually for a computer game, it kept on selling -- more than 4 million at the last count.

The more people played it at others' houses, the more they wanted a copy of their own. And not all were in the usual games player demographic.

"When we trialed it at a games event, we had no idea we would get grandparents and mothers playing," says Ron Festajo, creative director of EyeToy.

"Normally, the parents would be sitting around talking, while the children played with the controllers. But when they saw their children washing windows with their hands, they were saying `let me show you how it's done, you haven't got a clue how to wash windows.' The parents were competing against their children.

"That's when we knew we had something special," he said.

A lot of the magic came from that launch game, which was like nothing people had played before -- and yet was simple enough for everyone to try.

"If we'd launched it as the obvious Webcam -- it's a camera, it sits on your PS2 and the killer app [application] is that you can see your friends and family across the world -- I don't think it would have been anywhere near as successful," says Haigh. "It's too obvious. It needed something that sparked the imagination."

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