Interview With Victor Zordan, Expert In Video Game Technology
GF: The age-old debate: gamepad vs. keyboard and mouse. Your thoughts?
I just had some students talk to me about having the ability to play a real-time strategy game on a console with a gamepad, and it had some limitations because you don’t have as many buttons. That said, it has certain nice affordances like the ergonomics and the fact that you can have a continuous joystick. But, a keyboard is of general use.
It all depends on the demographic of the gamer, because if it’s a young person, for instance, they’re going to have a console in their living room. I doubt we’ll end up with keyboards there; you’ll have a gamepad because it’s portable. But at the same time, we’re seeing this ubiquitous use of computers, and the internet, and internet gaming. In this case, you have the keyboard. It’s going to be there; it’s more cumbersome, but we’re going to see that there are two classes of games, and two classes of gamers, and they’re each going to use their own controller.
GF: What can you tell me about your current research?
I can tell you about two projects. One is the main line of work I’ve been doing for several years, which is on physically-based character animation, where we are combining different control techniques to create characters that are responsive.
A good point of reference is a ragdoll animation. The ragdoll creates a physical representation of a character that’s not controlled. It has joint limits, but it acts like a lump of potatoes; it falls due to the weight of its body and acceleration due to gravity. These are the components that make it a physics-based representation. We’re working on making those systems come alive with muscle systems while still retaining the ability to respond to the environment. We’re making new and interesting ways to control these characters.
I’ve been working for years on controlling physically-based characters with human motion recorded through motion capture so that we can arrive at a nice compromise between these two technologies.
I am currently moving away from that by employing more biomechanics-based principles to control these characters based on observations of real humans. Without necessarily recording data and playing it back we can understand motion in an abstract way and apply this understanding to allow the character to do interesting things.
I am excited about being able to create phenomena like windmilling — when a character is off-balance and throws its arms out to catch itself.
The second line of research that has been ongoing for only a couple years is on using motion interfaces — something like the Kinect or the Wii. We use a person’s performance as an input to the system, but what we’ve been looking at are the discrepancies that arise. For instance, the character in the game world is hanging from a monkey-bar set, but the player is not leaving the ground or actually interacting with monkey-bars. We have a player in his living room miming the actions, but we have to deal with the fact that the character in the air is swinging around, must be in contact with the bars, and so on.
We have been looking at ways in which we can use those motion inputs in a world that’s also physically-based. We want that character, driven by the player in the living room, to interact with the world and respond to objects in the world.
GF: Any closing thoughts?
We are coming to point in our education system where we need some kick-back from the industry. The best applicants are being carefully groomed by people like me; we’re training these people and they’re being picked up before they even graduate. While the game industry sees a thousand applicants for every job it offers, we can’t get any research money from the National Science Foundation because they think graphics is a solved problem. They think games are for entertainment, not for science. So it’s an interesting situation because no one actually wants to give you any money to pay for that education, but it’s in high demand.
It would be nice if people in the industry could actually think about how to pool their resources. For instance, there can be a game developer/education consortium where all of these game industry components — studios, console developers, or even secondary companies — are contributing a small amount of money and pitching it at specific research institutes to solve these big picture problems, and then the student who is working on this gets their education paid for through the consortium’s funds.
Something like this is really needed because there are many interesting and exciting things that we can’t do, because at the moment, we’re being funded to research technologies in other fields instead, such as the medical field.
I understand the gaming industry is very competitive and tight with its budgets, but at the same time there are people out there who can be improving technologies for them that are being turned away. It’s unfortunate, because the gaming industry is huge; that much money should be able to generate some research in the academic environment that’s paid for by industry.