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Just a Thought - Human Pacman: The Next Big (iPod?) Thing!

by - November 18th, 2004

It's early evening on October 12, 2010.  The air has that crisp hydrocarbon laced bite to it that makes you feel both lazy and invigorated at the same time. The sun has just set, and though the chill in the air requires a jacket or sweater, it is still warm enough for you to enjoy a nice walk through the local park.

Lamp posts flicker to life as you stroll along the park's main path while listening to your antique original iPod. You notice that a small crowd of people have formed on the path ahead of you, they laugh and point at a clearing off the path; your curiosity is piqued so you stop to find out what's going on. It could be a street magician, or perhaps a mime? Maybe there's a cat or a kid stuck in a tree. You hope that no one's been mugged, such an event would ruin your neighborhood, which, by most measures, is such a nice, almost Rockwellian place.

As you draw nearer to the crowd you notice that, in the clearing into which everyone is looking, there is a small group of young people, kids really, each wearing a strange helmet and carrying what looks like the hilt of a light saber, the kind that Luke Skywalker of Star Wars would carry, only these are somewhat bigger.

In fact, the kids look as if they are acting out a scene from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones; they swing their defunct light sabers as if they were really fighting Sith and androids on some remote planet. Some fall, and the fallen get up and walk from the battle, removing their helmets and commenting loudly about the virtual fight they were just in.

As one of the youngsters approach, you stop her and ask what had just happen.

"Oh, we were just playin' a Star Wars Real Game on our vPods, see?"

The bright eyed girl turns around to show a small white box, about the size of a deck of playing cards, clipped to her belt. The box has what looks like two small antennas on it; one looks like the result of a bee sting, the other is taller, narrower. You glance at your old iPod, which still sounds great, and the new fuel cells will let you play the entire 5 gigs of music twice over before needing refueling, but the technology seems as old as 8 track tapes when compared to the vPod.

"Those are for Wi-Fi and BT3 (Bluetooth 3.0)," she says, pointing to the antennas, "they connect all the players to the Net, where the game is really played."

Intrigued, you ask if you can have a look inside her helmet. She giggles and passes the surprisingly lightweight device to you.

"BT3 connects everything locally," she explains, "and talks to other vPods within range."

You put on the helmet and are surprised to find that you can see your surroundings quite clearly. When you look into the clearing, however, you see a heated battle taking place. Robots fire hellish weapons at a fearfully small band of fighters wielding light sabers, the weapon's fire is mostly deflected as the saber fighters engage the robots, cutting them down with amazing speed and agility. There is sound too; light sabers drone like angry bees, while explosions and weapon fire makes you want to duck and run for cover.

As you look closer at the scene, however, you notice that the robots, though convincing in movement and stature, look somewhat opaque; the trees and bushes behind are barely visible through them, appearing more like vague shadows than something real. Then you see a droid walk through a nearby tree, and the illusion is suspended for a brief second. You know that what you and the player in the clearing are seeing is not real, that it is being generated by some computer somewhere and is being fed wirelessly to the computers each player wears, but as the droid clears the tree and the battle intensifies, you find that you don't care that it is not real; you want to grab the girl's light saber and join in, because, damn if it doesn't look like a lot of fun.

The scenario I've just described is obviously fiction, science fiction, in fact, but only just so, because it is all based on an extrapolation of a real device that plays a real virtual game.

Meet the Human Pacman. Silly name, but it aptly describes what it does; a player dons a computer in a backpack, which is wirelessly connected to other computers, and runs around an actual maze, collecting dots and dodging either computer generated (CG) or live ghosts. There are power-ups and other familiar goodies in the Human Pacman maze, and you do what you need to do to get all the dots and move tot he next level. Cool, huh?

From the CNN article, Pacman breaks out of the arcade, that explains the whole thing:

The system was designed by a team led by Dr. Adrian Cheok of the Mixed Reality Lab at the National University of Singapore, using ubiquitous computing technology.

By combining wireless local area networking with Bluetooth and GPS technology, head-mounted displays and inertia sensors, Cheok and his team were able to bring Pacman to life.

"The Human Pacman is basically a wearable computer with a head mounted display and various sensors which is sensing my body's position and as well as the head orientation so I know exactly where I am and what I'm looking at," explains Cheok.

"So when we do this we can augment the real world with the virtual world, so the Pacman world becomes part of the real world. I can see cookies in front of me and I can collect them by walking through them."

There's much more in the full article at CNN.

I don't know about you, but I'm starting to save my pennies now!

This is really what gaming is about, boys and girls; no more fat, myopic kids with chronically running noses staring at tiny screens in dark playrooms during bright sunny days; no more pasty faced 98 pound weaklings jerking joysticks and wondering why they can't get a date. Every nerd will be healthy, every geek will have the stamina of a marathoner, because that is what it will take to play these oh-so-cool games, and win.

And the games will be cool too. Remember that it wasn't so long ago that original Pacman was the pinnacle of computer animation and graphics. Today we have Halo, Unreal Tournament, Myst, Quake, and other graphically eye-popping games. It won't take long before gamers start demanding the hardware and software to play outdoors. If Steve Jobs and his Crew aren't looking seriously at this as a way to expand on the iPod and Mac theme, then something is seriously wrong at Apple.

This is technology you should keep an eye on, my friends -- everyone's been looking for the Next Big Thing, and I think its been found. It's running around outside a lab in Singapore.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

You can send your comments directly to me, or you can also post your comments below.

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