3-D, Interactive Board Games Will Come to Life

Get ready to give the gaming console or computer a break, because the future of board games may transform static 2-D cardboard into interactive tile-based displays that mimic the action of video games.

Canadian researchers built a prototype whereby simply touching tiles together or "pouring" the contents of a tile onto another could make virtual villages rise up from the ground or soldiers swarm off a ship to do battle.

Such interactive board games could encourage families to get "back together in a sociable environment rather than each being separated in space by displays and tech," said Roel Vertegaal, a computer scientist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario who headed the effort.

Many Americans have become info-junkies accustomed to creating their own individualized entertainment spaces with smart phones, laptops and gaming consoles.

But the rise of casual gaming on the Nintendo Wii has allowed many parents to play with their kids, and some families even play together in online multiplayer games such as the popular "World of Warcraft."

Having interactive board games could appeal to both kids and adults who grew up on video games, not to mention update the old rainy day standbys for the 21st century.

Interactive tiles

Vertegaal's futuristic gaming prototype drew inspiration from the popular board game "Settlers of Catan," in which players try to build settlements and roads that control certain resources. But instead of the usual static tiles that display players' resources, the researchers used blank hexagonal tiles that could serve as backgrounds for a digital projector. They then projected the virtual board game action rendered by a computer onto the tiles.

Invisible infrared dots at each corner of the hexagon tile allow the computer to track the relative location of the tile, even when the tile moves or rotates. That means the computer can not only keep the proper projected image centered on each tile, but also cue game interactions when certain tiles touch each other.

It can even detect when a tile is tilted and trigger a physics-based "pouring" interaction.

Clunky projectors could eventually give way to OLED or E-Ink technologies like the kind that power ebook readers, and would turn each board game tile into a visual display. Vertegaal told TechNewsDaily that he expects such interactive board games to come to life within the next 5 or 10 years.

Vertegaal's Human Media Lab has also experimented with projecting functional interfaces for iPods or Blackberries onto crude 3D objects such as Styrofoam. He showed off the board game prototype and related technologies at the Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction conference at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. last week.

The use of projectors with board games may still represent a "dry run" for future gaming, but Vertegaal says that the approach could prove more immediately useful elsewhere.

For instance, surgeons might use the projection technology to provide real-time info on a patient's status during surgery.

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.