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More than a Gesture

Softkinetic CEO Michel Tombroff on what could become the successor to the motion-based technology of today

While Nintendo has steadily conquered a decent proportion of the known world with the motion-based controls on its Wii console, one company has been working away at what it hopes could be the next step.

Softkinetic has developed software which works in conjunction with a 3D camera, scanning and replicating body movement, and in the process doing away entirely with the need for a Wiimote, or similar input device.

The company recently unveiled the technology at work in a collaboration with Orange, using it to operate and navigate a television system, and here CEO Michel Tombroff explains more about the product and its applications.

Q: How much has motion-based technology changed the games industry in the past 18 months, do you think?

Michel Tombroff: Oh, dramatically, particularly if you're referring to the superb job that Nintendo has done with the Wii, it's completely reshaped the industry. I think the success of the Wii is the reason Softkinetic is here today, because had we come up with our technology as we did a year and a half ago, but with no reference to something like the Wii and the superb work that companies like Ubisoft have done, people probably wouldn't have paid us any attention.

But now we can refer the market to the Wii, and demonstrate that it's possible to have a great experience with gestures. And you can also have people from backgrounds you didn't anticipate that now love playing games - women, old people, kids, etcetera.

Plus it doesn't need to be very complicated, because when you bring gestures into a game, of course it's very hard to build a hardcore game of the type that people play on PC and super-consoles, but you can still build very exciting experiences.

However, I think we're only at the beginning of that path, even on the Wii, because people will still find new ways to explore using those devices. So what we think is going to happen is that as our 3D cameras come to market, people are already comfortable with the concept and they are ready for accessory-based games, because for titles like Guitar Hero so they're already plugging other accessories into their console.

So yes - it's changed the industry dramatically, and for the better.

Q: Has it changed it for good, or could it be a phase that passes over time?

Michel Tombroff: I wouldn't put it that way. It certainly won't erase the need for the more traditional types of games, and there will be experiences that you will not be able to replicate using gestures - some things just don't make sense with gestures. In that sense it won't be a replacement, it will just be an expansion of the market, for new experiences.

And by the way I think it will go beyond games, in applications to do with fitness, or clients making games for very senior people - and by senior I mean 75 and above. Those type of games you can't do with a traditional accessory. Even with the Wii you couldn't do that.

Q: Much has been said about the current economy and whether or not it might affect the more casual gaming audiences - what are your thoughts?

Michel Tombroff: I don't think so - I don't think any industry is immune from the crisis, but I think the fact that you can have fun for a relatively low price, on something you can repeat the experience with - with your family quite often - suggests that this industry won't be too affected.

I think on the contrary, some people will decide to defer more important expenses, such as travel and expensive restaurants, and decide to spend more time in the living room with the family.

It's impossible to predict, but I feel personally that the industry will come through the crisis relatively fine. People like to have fun with short and sweet experiences.

Q: Softkinetic's technology does away with the need for a Wiimote and uses the 3D camera instead - isn't that a much more complex technology?

Michel Tombroff: Yes, it is - it's a technology that comes from industrial, and in some cases military, environments, so it has a lot of history. The complexity isn't so much in the technology - that's relatively simple. The complexity is in the manufacturing - to make it cheap and robust, because you want something that will work in all conditions, without complicated calibration, but still cheap enough that people will buy it.

About a year and a half ago those devices were still completely out of reach to any consumer, and most developers - thousands of dollars per camera - but there's been a lot of investment since then by venture capitalists and even governments to see how we can bring the technology to the market.

This month was the key for me, to see that happen, because three or four of the largest consumer electronics companies - Toshiba, Hitachi, us (with Orange) and one other - presented products that will arrive in stores relatively soon.

So I think we're getting there.

Q: Give us a summary of the improvements, as you see them, of the 3D camera over something like the Wiimote.

Michel Tombroff: First of all there's a sense of immersion - you step into the scene, and you see yourself completely from head to toe. If you move your hand or shoulder slightly, you'll see the avatar in the scene do exactly the same.

At first it's quite a strange sensation, and that's another difference - that the avatar will do exactly what you do. You can play tennis on the Wii and still sit on the sofa, using just small gestures with your hand. But here, you can't fake it. Here, if you want to play tennis, you have to do the real gestures, or close to them.

And the third thing is that you can step in and out without having to attach yourself even to something as simple as a Wiimote - it makes it even more natural. Clearly we don't think that this technology will take away the value of other existing accessories, even something like the Wiimote, because having something in your hand, something tangible that can give you feedback - like Force Feedback - or that you can click... those can complete the experience quite well.

Q: You're working with EA Sports on a project - can you tell us about that, when you'd expect it to come to market?

Michel Tombroff: Well first of all I think the development time of such applications doesn't change much, because we go from this technology to another. Most of the complexity is in the game itself - the actual gesture part is probably not the most important. I'd expect games to still take a minimum of 12-18 months to be ready.

There is something a bit different about casual games, because in general publishers will tend to publish a set of games, not just one - because they're games you don't necessarily just play for a long time. You play tennis maybe for ten minutes, then you want to play a bit of football, maybe then fighting, or dancing. So it's not just one game, it's going to be a portfolio of games in my opinion.

Q: It'll require the consumer to buy the camera - what do you think a good price point would be for consumers to invest in that?

Michel Tombroff: Well, I'm not an expert in economics, but I expect - based on discussions we've had with publishers and accessory manufacturers - the indications are that if the accessory product is within the USD 100 retail price, and if the experience is worth it, they'll take it. Guitar Hero certainly proved that.

We see the USD 100 mark as the key stepping stone that all the big players want to achieve. Initially maybe the first few products will be more expensive, and only the early-adopters in terms of hardcore gamers will maybe want it - but that's the price point that manufacturers will need to reach.

Q: Have you spoken to either Microsoft or Sony about putting this technology on their platforms?

Michel Tombroff: We can't comment unfortunately on the contact we've had with the major manufacturers.

Q: But it's a technology that can work on both the Xbox and PlayStation?

Michel Tombroff: Yes, it's generic enough that it can be adapted to any platform, whether it's a PC or console. The work that we presented at CES will actually end up in a Linux set-top box, so there's no architectural constraint on the camera or the software.

Q: Outside of videogames, there's an obvious application for the use of this technology in products aimed at disabled or physically impaired people - how much interest has there been in things like remedial software?

Michel Tombroff: There are a few answers to that. First of all there's a large interest in the B-to-B angle, and by that I mean we've been approached by medical equipment manufacturers, hospitals, doctors, physiotherapists and so on who would like to use the technology for those purposes.

The client we announced recently called SilverFit is a good example of that. Their product is like a mini-arcade system that they sell to senior homes and hospitals, and it works fantastically well for anybody with any kind of disability where they need to practice slow gestures, or specific gestures.

As far as the consumer is concerned, I think the success of this technology will come not just from the use in games for senior people, and so on, it's going to be more for games in which it will be part of a much more global experience, like the TV, for example.

The TV will be controlled with gestures, you'll navigate content with gestures, and then you'll access services and games that are built for you. I'm not sure a parallel market for disabled-specific videogames will emerge. On the contrary the TV will enable those people to play the other games. That's how we look at it.

Michel Tombroff is CEO of Softkinetic. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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