Computer games team onto a hands-free winner

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am


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Kinect, Microsoft's new motion-sensing device for its Xbox 360 video game console, is not legally available on the mainland. But that hasn't stopped game developer and former IBM research scientist Dr Lu Sheng and his team getting hold of one, converting it for use on a personal computer and creating the first Kinect game from the mainland. Kinect lets users interact with a game through gestures rather than controllers and, like all video game consoles, it's banned on the mainland in the interests of child protection. Nevertheless, it's widely available and Lu thinks the technology could spawn a new industrial revolution.

What's the game about?

It's called Buggy Arena and it's a shooter game played online around the world. It's about being a bug and killing other bugs. The storyline begins a few years after the extinction of human beings. The earth is a mess: big animals have disappeared and little bugs are taking over the world. But before long, they repeat the same big mistakes of humans and start to fight each other. You choose which bug you want to be and use your buggy weapons to eliminate as many opponents as possible. So far, most Kinect shooting games developed by big gaming studios have been 'on rails', meaning that the computer, not you, decides where your in-game character goes. That's no fun - it feels like you are being pulled around by a rope through the nose. Buggy Arena offers a free-roaming experience in a virtual world with full Kinect control. To run forward, you put your hands forward. To retreat, you pull your hands back. To turn right, tilt your body to the right. To turn left, tilt your body to the left. To shoot a pistol, thrust an arm. For a grenade, put a hand on your heart. It's fun, especially when the arena is full of other players. The game is developed with our own motion-recognition programme and 3-D image-rendering engine. It doesn't require an Xbox 360 and works on any reasonably recent PC running Windows with a USB port. And it's absolutely free. We just developed Buggy Arena to show our technical abilities and the Kinect's cross-platform potential to Chinese people.

Tell me about yourself and your team.

My team has eight members - four programmers, including me, two art designers and two business developers. Huang Benhua, our key technical officer, is a software genius with a feverish love for Kinect. We finished the game in less than a month. As for me, after getting my PhD in computer science from Southeast University in Nanjing, I had some odd jobs, such as analysing digital fingerprints for the police. My last job was as a scientist at IBM's mainland research centre. I worked for IBM for almost six years, getting involved in some serious projects such as virtual reality - and meeting my wife there. But last year I quit. I will soon be 40, and I think it's time to do something that I have been dreaming about since I was child. I want to develop games. Fortunately, an IT company that I started up with a few friends some time ago had become quite big and profitable. I was no longer in the company's management, but my friends knew my dream and funded my little start-up, Minstron.

What do you think is the future for Kinect?

To people in the industry, Kinect is a miracle. Kinect surprised everyone, not with its technology, but its price. The device uses an infrared depth sensor to detect and capture body motions. It's long been used in missiles and we'd never seen the sensor in consumer products because each one cost US$10,000. But an Israeli company called PrimeSense brought the price down to US$100 and sold the technology to Microsoft. Microsoft limits the official support of Kinect to its Xbox 360 console - they won't let you hook it up to a PC. That's a marketing strategy that nobody buys, of course. Kinect was hacked within a week of going on the market. Every technologically savvy computer engineer I know wants to lay his hands on it. In Kinect, they see a portal to the future. Kinect will change the way we use computers, as profoundly as the mouse did. The mouse changed the way we worked with computers. Without the mouse, there wouldn't be Windows or any other graphical user interface. But soon you won't have to sit in front of a monitor and labour over a keyboard and mouse. You will need to just wave a hand, nod your head or snap your fingers in the living room, kitchen or toilet and the computer will understand what you need. That's the vision that guides and stimulates our team when we write software. The technology is not only a new way of gaming, but a new way of living. Even Microsoft has begun to see it, by releasing a software development kit for researchers this month.

Is it difficult to develop Kinect-related games or applications on the mainland?

From the technological point of view, start-up companies from China and software giants overseas are competing on the same ground. The technology's application in civilian products is so new that nobody has more ideas or experience than others. That gives small players in China some advantages - we don't have an established business to distract us. We are betting every penny in our pocket, every second of our time and every neuron in our brain on Kinect. And in China, we are not alone. Since we released the game last month, several hi-tech companies in Guangdong have contacted us with keen interest. That is really encouraging. When I put our team together and started the company last year, we focused on 3-D game engines. We are a bunch of geeks obsessed with spatial algorithms. We worked hard and came up with an awesome product. We took it to some big gaming studios and they were impressed. But big companies are reluctant to change when they have big cash streaming in from established pipelines. The arrival of Kinect changed the landscape of the gaming industry overnight. We were elevated to the same ground and compete head-to-head with giants. We are not only developing new games but exploring the application of Kinect in virtual reality. For instance, our programme can easily be adopted for office use. Keynote speakers no longer need to use a pointer or keyboard to control their PowerPoint presentations. They can just wave a hand and the page will flip instantly, making a boring lecture lively. Our biggest problem is that we don't know how many Chinese families are using Kinect. We know there must be a lot, but nobody has an exact number. All Xbox consoles on the mainland are smuggled in and sold on the black market, and so is the Kinect. The government should lift the ban soon, or China will miss another industrial revolution.