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Making the virtual world real

Last updated on: December 22, 2007 15:41 IST

An Israeli company, 3DV Systems, is unveiling technology that lets electronic gamers use their body as a controller for a wide variety of videogames. The technology relies on an inexpensive camera, called a Zcam, that connects to computers and game consoles via a USB cable. The camera picks up changes in light reflected off objects at high speed (namely 60 frames a second) and translates those into videogame commands.

Although the technology will not be commercially available until next year, 3DV Systems says it will price its camera much like Webcams, which typically cost between $50 and $100.

To demonstrate the system, 3DV Systems Chief Executive Zvika Klier held his arms in front of him as if he were grasping a steering wheel and used his thumb to pull an imaginary trigger. In an onscreen computer flight simulation game, virtual bombs dropped from a plane onto a town below.

"The camera calls for completely new types of game play," Klier declares.

Klier's choice of demonstration was just an accident. He and his management team have extensive experience in the Israeli military. His previous company, GammaSense, developed nuclear material sensors for U.S. homeland security. 3DV counts Silicon Valley's prestigious Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers among its investors, along with Rafael Development, a holding company with close ties to the Israeli Ministry of Defense. 3DV has been working on depth-sensing technology for years and released its first such camera in 2000. Only now has the company been able to squeeze the technology into a small--and cheap--enough camera that it could be sold to gamers.

Klier also showed off a computer boxing game. On a computer screen, Klier's body appeared in front of a fierce, virtual opponent. The challenge punched; Klier ducked. As the real-world Klier threw punch combinations, so did the virtual image.

The camera can recognize left and right and up and down motions, as well as movement either away or toward the camera. It can pick up the flick of a small finger or a wildly swinging limb. The system can also insert a background video--such as a tropical paradise or war-torn game landscape--behind the virtual player.

Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, makers of the major gaming platforms, have all expressed some interest in "gesture gaming." Nintendo's simple Wii remotes popularized the concept. Both Sony and Microsoft both sell Webcams that bring video of gamers onscreen with a few limited motion-recognition features. "Wii has been very helpful in creating public awareness about how much better games can be if they are intuitive," Klier says.

But waving the Wii remote as a virtual tennis racket or baseball bat is a far cry from the total-body immersion Klier wants to see. "The Wii tracks motion at one or two points. But what about your head?" he says."What about dancing and body language? Think about [online virtual world] 'Second Life,' where you can fly and wave at people."

Getting hardware makers and software developers onboard to publish games for a new interface--such as one without familiar controllers--is difficult, however. Klier says he's in talks with "major" hardware and software companies about making systems compatible with Zcam.

Last March, a prototype of the Zcam was part of a demonstration of innovative technologies at Microsoft's annual TechFest. Klier hopes the camera will be ready for mass manufacturing in the middle of 2008, ideally in association with a gaming system or existing consumer electronics brand.

3DV is among dozens of game interface companies struggling to team up with established hardware and software gaming businesses. In March 2007, San Francisco-based Emotiv Systems announced its game interface controller--a skullcap that lets players control action in a game with brainwaves.

Nine months later, the company still has announced no partnerships.

"Competitors are not a threat to my business--the biggest threat is that the market isn't ready for us as fast as it could be," Klier says.

Rachel Rosmarin,