Sunday, July 4, 2010

GT5 and Head Tracking: a small innovation that might prove big

Gran Turismo 5 Cockpit

Lately the media attention is all on "big" innovations like 3D gaming or advanced forms of motion control. When you browse a gaming site chances are that the first article you'll come to is about dark glasses, Kinect, Move, 3DS and similar features that are interesting, but that still didn't fully prove their actual contribution to the quality of gaming.

Today I'm going to talk about an "innovation", that for now didn't yet receive that much media attention, but might prove quite a big deal for gaming in the future: head tracking.

First of all, the term "innovation" needs mandatory quotes, as head tracking isn't completely new both in non-gaming applications (most webcams can do it, even if often in a rather unresponsive way) and in gaming. PC gamers have a few head tracking implements dedicated to gaming like the TrackIR. Unfortunately the high price (around 150 dollars) prevented them to become widespread. Similar tracking features have made brief appearences on consoles as well, thanks to the old EyeToy (and it's evolution, the Playstation Eye), but so far the technology allowed only for a few casual-oriented experiences.

Gran Turismo 5 will be the first core-oriented console game to introduce full fledged head tracking for the control of the point of view inside the cockpit.
Many won't probably realize immediately the importance of this innovation, but as someone that used the TrackIR for several years both on racing and flight simulations, it's hard not to be excited.

What head tracking does is simple and complex at the same time: it detects the position of your head in front of the sensor/camera, and moves the point of view in the game's 3D space accordingly. It seems simple so far, but it needs a further elaboration in order to work well.

Many people think that head tracking is unconfortable, because they envision it as a 1:1 movement, with the need to look away from the screen in order to actually look to your side or behind you. That's not exactly the case.
Gaming related head tracking is normally calibrated so that your movement is magnified. Just turning your head slightly to the right will result in an increased movement on the screen, allowing you to look fully to the side, for instance, without moving your eyes from the screen.
This video about the TrackIR shows very well how it works (and some of the possible future applications of head tracking in gaming).

A racing simulator like Gran Turismo is probably the best candidate to fully exploit the potential of head tracking. Many gamers often have trouble approaching racing games despite the fact that they know how to drive a car in real life. When the experience is transitioned to a TV in their living room, though, they seem to be unable to keep their car on the track or even perform that simple overtake that is a completely natural and common operation every morning while going to work in real life.
In most cases it's a matter of situational awareness. When you drive your car in real life, you unconsciously perform a wide range of movements with your head and eyes that increase your awareness of the space around you. In turn your body naturally reacts to your position in the space and makes driving your car easy.

When you overtake another car, you will instictively keep track of it in your field of view. When you approach a turn you will look towards the inside of the corner in order to let your brain naturally calculate the trajectory your car will follow. Your eye/hand coordination will do the rest of the work for you.
The main weakness of console racing games is that the movement of your point of view has to be controlled via the fingers, something that's almost impossible to do while manouvering since you're already plenty busy steering and shifting. Even if you're better than a piano-playing octopus and somehow manage to look around, control over the point of view is never precise enough.

Basically, no matter how engrossing and detailed the 3D view is, unless you're driving with an external camera (that still disrupts immersion), you will be limited to the flat "world" of your flat screen.
If you tried to drive your car in real life (seriously, do NOT try it, it's actually dangerous) without moving your neck and eyes at all, you would have a similar experience. It would be equally unconfortable.

Head tracking closes, at least in large part, the gap between the situational awareness you have while driving a car in real life and on your console.
It's actually quite funny to notice that, even while playing, most gamers naturally turn their head slightly towards the inside of turns. Obviously nothing happens, but they continue to do it anyway. It's a matter of istinct as your body tries to improve your situational awareness even when the game doesn't allow it.
With head tracking the game will actually respond to that, moving the visual slightly towards the inside of the turn and restoring the eye/hand coordination that happens when you enter and exit a corner in real life.

Overtakes (both overtaking someone and being overtaken), expecially during turns, are the primary cause of crashes during online racing. It's pretty normal. Two competitive dudes racing head to head on a narrow lane with different trajectories that are bound to meet somewhere is a risky affair by itself.
Imagine how much the risk increases if the two dudes are wearing blinders like horses.
That's exactly what happens while racing online without head tracking. You're wearing blinders.

This takes a lot out of the realism of racing online, since turns are, in real life racing, the most common spot in which overtaking happens.

With head tracking gamers will be able to increase their spatial awareness during overtakes tenfolds, and this will probably reduce the amount of crashes during online racing by a lot.
If you played previous racing games online you know very well that crashes are the most frustrating and fun spoiling part of the experience.

This, of course, without even mentioning the increased immersion, the ability to look around freely while driving, that will enable us to finally enjoy fully the beauty of the environment, of the other cars and of the cockpit. The ones wanting total realism could even turn off the hud, since they will have full access to the dials and indicators in front of them.

In the end it's easy to see the potential of this "small" innovation. I would say that for core gamers it could bring more to the table than actual motion control, 3D and all those "big" innovations the use of which seem to be often limited, at least for now.

Racing games aren't obviously the only games that could benefit greatly from advanced head tracking. If you watched the video I linked above about TrackIR, you probably noticed it already. Every game that involves a first person perspective (including first person shooters) would receive an astonishing improvement in situational awareness and immersion.

This is probably the best chance to turn head tracking from a "small" innovation into a "big" one. Gran Turismo 5 will be quite obviously immensely successful, and will very possibly contribute to "publicize" this feature to it's users, turning it from something kind of obscure and needing lenghty explanations like this article, into a commonly understood and appreciated feature.
The technology able to perform this kind of task is included in both Move and Kinect, thing that will possibly contribute to a widespread integration as well.

The PS3 has a little advantage, considering that the Playstation Eye costs, by itself, little over 30 dollars, and gamers that want this feature, but can't care the less about Move, can access it with a small expense. Kinect is a full package, and the entry price of (allegedly) 150 dollars might discourage more than a few (like the same price discourages many PC gamers from trying TrackIR). Also, Microsoft didn't show, so far, any interest in using this kind of functionality.

I was actually pretty disappointed when they shown the little Forza Motorsport demo at E3. It concentrated on the extremely awkward and imprecise operation of steering with a wheel that doesn't exist and didn't show the most natural and advantageous element that kinect could bring to the Forza franchise: head tracking. That's what I define a serious case of skewed priorities.

Anyway, we can definitely look forward to drive in Gran Turismo 5 while able to fully control the viewpoint with the movement of our head. Also, we can definitely hope that it won't be the last example of this very convenient technology in core-oriented console games. It might be a "small" innovation, but it's effects have all the potential to be big, and actually bring a sizable improvement to our gaming experience.

8 comments:

  1. Good Read, nice article, thumbs up.

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  2. That looks very cool. In this current stage of the hardware where immersion is the key (3ds, 3-d tv/computer screens, motion controls) this seems like it could be an innovative hit.

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  3. One thing that needed to be mentioned is that in order for head-tracking to take full effect, you need to sit pretty close to the TV/Monitor. It's the equivalent to creating a realistic FOV (Field of View). Essentially, you need to use the monitor as if it's the windshield of the car and if you're sitting on the sofa, 5 to 6 feet away from the screen, head-tracking makes little or no sense.

    To be full immersed in a driving sim, you need to totally ignore the guideline for optimum sitting distance/TV size and instead use experience and common sense. Still, I enjoyed reading the article and agree wholeheartedly on how useful head-tracking will be in GT5.

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  4. Throw 3 screens into the mix and you're there. ONly place left to go is 3d.

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