Interactive Surfaces & Tables: truly 3D gaming at Lancaster University

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I attended the latest of the ongoing Brunch Bytes sessions at Lancaster University’s InfoLab21 this week – this was about Interactive Surfaces and Tables. I’m always interested in the intersection of design, technology and interactive content; and found this session particularly informative and inspiring.

After the session, I caught up with John Hughes and Chris Bull, the two PhD researchers who’d delivered the seminar. While their main focus had been on the ‘Coffee Table‘ project, they also briefly referenced another research piece – an interactive table gaming application – during the talk. Their enthusiasm was infectious, piquing my curiosity, so I asked if I could take a look and shoot a panorama.

Inside the HighWire Doctoral Training Centre I saw the interactive table, which is very cool. The demo allows two users to play against each other, driving 3D vehicles head-to-head around a course. You can see each user’s vehicle displayed on their respective monitors, as they control them with gamepads. The really cool thing, though, is the real-time 3D object and collision detection… the vehicles are navigating around and interacting with real objects on the table’s surface. So you can drive up the wooden ramps (and fall off them, even feeling the impact with the controller’s force feedback), or stop a car by placing your hand on the table as an obstacle. Better still, the CG elements are projected onto the table surface in realtime… so you can drive your car around, smashing into CG wooden boxes and dodging around real-world objects, all whilst trying to race, avoid or ram your opponent. The mix of real and CG terrain and objects is compelling and the gameplay is rather addictive. Exceedingly clever stuff.

I understand the core of the system uses an overhead-mounted Microsoft Kinect, the graphics were built with the OGRE engine, the projector is an off-the-shelf number, and there’s a lot of smart home-brew code holding it all together. I hope to be able to link to more technical details, and I also shot some video which I’ll post here soon, to better show the whole kit in action.

Capturing the projected cars and boxes on the table, and giving them enough definition to stand out from the ambient light, was a bit of a challenge! A quick setup and a huge dynamic range from the bright sunlight outside meant only one option: shooting HDR and then smoothing out the motion in post. Ideally we’d have set it up slightly differently to better demonstrate the interaction, but I hope this whets the viewer’s appetite. As the table itself demonstrates, there’s nothing wrong with a little hacking to prove a concept!
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