13 September 2012

Game of life

Their hands clad in high-tech oven mitts, two young men laugh and cheer as they pop virtual bubbles. A young woman works up a sweat while hanging off a bar, resting her feet every few seconds on logs that float along the animated river raging beneath her.

Sounds like fun, but at the Exertion Games Lab, this is serious business. The lab is one of two research centres at RMIT working on gaming and design.

While interactive gaming is a rapidly growing industry - predicted to be worth $2.5 billion in Australia and $90 billion globally by 2015 - both Exertion Games and the Games and Experimental Entertainment Laboratory are looking far beyond mere recreation.

"We focus on the merging of play, technology and the human body to help us understand how to design better interactive experiences," Exertion Games Lab director, Dr Florian "Floyd" Mueller, says.

"It's about inventing the future of play, designing games and working prototypes to inspire industry."

An alumnus of the MIT Media Lab, Mueller has encouraged a similar inter-disciplinary creative culture at RMIT, drawing designers, artists and engineers from around the world.

The lab's practical but left-of-field approach last year attracted the interest of US performance and condition monitoring firm Zephyr, which gave researcher Wouter Walmink free rein to take its pioneering BioHarness in new directions.

Popular with professional athletes, the BioHarness measures your critical vital signs such as heart and breathing rate, while contextualising the information with physical activity.

Walmink's take resulted in a prototype cycling accessory that already has bike riders in Melbourne excited.

"The Open Heart Helmet shows your heart rate to your fellow riders," he explains. "At first the cyclists we tested with couldn't see the point - why display it on the back of my helmet where I can't see it? But when they wore them, they got it.

"During the ride, they'd use the numbers to motivate each other. The one in front would be pushed to go further and harder, the one behind got instant feedback, seeing the effect of their encouragement on the heart rate displayed.

"The social aspect of riding that's at the heart of the sport became much more expressive and supportive - they loved it."

Other projects emerging from the 11-strong team include the Bubble Popper (combining the magic of popping bubbles in a merged physical-virtual space), Hanging off a Bar (where a wild river projected underneath the player pushes them to hang on as long as they can) and the Joggobot (a flying robot to give you both company and motivation on your morning jog).

While the Exertion Games Lab is precisely focused on physical activity, the Games and Experimental Entertainment Laboratory has a wider brief.

The GEElab's projects range across industries, from automotive to publishing, with the aim of bringing game design thinking into everyday life.

Concepts for in-car entertainment systems of the future are being developed through a collaboration with Audi.

GEElab doctoral researcher Chris Berry has travelled to Germany to meet Audi's Head of Predevelopment, Andreas Reich, and further the project, which is looking at combining holographic 3D projection, gestural interaction and geotagging to both entertain and educate those in the back seat.

"Through the collaboration with the GEElab, we hope to benefit from a new and non-automotive view on interaction design in vehicles," Reich says.

"Applying these perspectives and the GEElab expertise offers huge potential for new and even more entertaining in-car interaction.

"In contrast to basic result-orientated task execution, playing games motivates the user continuously.

"Transferring this approach to the main design of in-car infotainment systems can provide a new impulse for enjoyable and user-friendly systems."

GEElab director Dr Steffen P Walz splits his time between the lab's two hubs in Melbourne and Karlsruhe, south-west Germany (establishing an Asian base in Shanghai is next on the agenda).

The lab's research projects range from enterprise engagement (using game thinking to engage, motivate and reward employees) to future cities (improving wellbeing, engagement and sustainability through game design methods) and new generation textbooks (collaborating with major German publisher, Cornelsen).

Workshops helping industry apply an understanding of games to concrete business challenges are also in high demand - Nokia Services in Finland and LG Display in South Korea are recent clients.

"Forward-looking companies can see that games and entertainment media are the emergent cultural forms of our time, and that game thinking offers a distinctive competitive edge," Walz says.

"Bringing playfulness into your strategy, whether to motivate employees, improve customer relations or drive product and system innovation, simply makes business sense."

Story: GosiaKaszubska
Photo: Carla Gottgens
Video: Exertion Games Lab

This story was first published in RMIT's Making Connections magazine.

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Exertion Games Lab director Dr Florian "Floyd" Mueller and GEElab director Dr Steffen P Walz

Exertion Games Lab director Dr Florian "Floyd" Mueller and GEElab director Dr Steffen P Walz.