SNAP System Puts Gamers in Motion

An Image from a SNAP Promotional VideoMotion-based controls made their way in mainstream video gaming with the introduction of the Nintendo Wii in late 2006. Major players like Sony and Microsoft are now readying their own takes on motion sensing technology for market, not only to attract a wider segment of players but also to increase player activity levels.

Another promising new technology is quietly being perfected in Ottawa, Canada. Developed by a team of researchers at Carleton University, SNAP (Sensor Network for Active Play) requires players to move all four major limbs to control video games. Game Forward had the opportunity to test out the SNAP system in the company of Dr. Anthony Whitehead, professor at the Carleton School of Information Technology and lead researcher on the project. Read More...

Whitehead explains he had been looking forward to the release of the Nintendo Wii, but that after getting his hands on the system, the Carleton professor was disappointed. “(Wii) is fun for about a month, then people start to cheat and just sit on the couch and flick their wrist," he said in a news article.

Even with further developments, the effectiveness of Wii Remote remained underwhelming to Dr. Whitehead. “I was very keen on getting my hands on the Motion Plus add-on. However, I was disappointed and much like the original opinion I had of the Wii, I don't think that they have maximized the capabilities of the sensors available,” explained Whitehead in an e-mail interview with Game Forward.

Unlike Wii control methods, SNAP requires full body motion at all times. The system’s inertial sensing devices feed data on the movement and position of each limb into the gaming software. “We attach the sensors to various locations on the body and assume that the motion of the sensor is the same as the motion of the body part.”

“As it stands now, games don’t require significant physical skills to play.” The SNAP accelerometer system and accompanying games were designed to address this issue. “Our thought process is different. We want to know what the whole body is doing,” says Whitehead of his team’s project.

“The SNAP system incorporates physicality as part of the input system so couch potatoes playing against Olympic athletes will both get a vigorous workout. The goal is to combine active play and multimedia to help alleviate the obesity crisis in youth.”

By having sensors monitor all four extremities, SNAP creates a far better workout, effectively limiting a player’s tendency to slack off and cheat. "If we have you do a jumping jack, it can tell if your legs are apart," said Whitehead. In support of its effectiveness, SNAP was tested against Wii Fit and was found to be more successful in raising a player’s overall activity levels.

A yet to be published study led by Dr. Jo Welch of Dalhousie University “compared one of our games that we designed for fun against Wii Fit step aerobics. SNAP significantly outperformed the Wii Fit in achieving target heart rates, pulse rates and energy expenditure,” explains Whitehead.

One of the SNAP Accelerometer UnitsThe SNAP project was developed through the Interactive Multimedia and Design program of the Bachelor of Information Technology, a joint collaboration between Carleton University and Algonquin College, both located in Ottawa, Canada. The research team initially consisted of Dr. Whitehead, masters student Hannah Johnston and undergraduate students Kaitlyn Fox, Nick Crampton and Joe Tuen. The undergraduate students have since moved on to other endeavours, but Whitehead and Johnston continue to work on the technology.

Game Forward recently had the chance to test out the system hands-on at Carleton University. While the software used to demonstrate SNAP is a little rough around the edges, it wholly succeeds in showcasing the system’s effectiveness. The four-accelerometer system functions as advertised and is surprisingly sensitive and accurate.

The system is currently demonstrated using three PC-based games entitled Posemania, a DDR-style dance game; Robopaint, a dance training game; and Track Heroes, an exercise game reminiscent of the Konami classic Track & Field. An infomercial-style video promoting the SNAP system and software can be viewed here.

In its present iteration, the hub connecting all four motion-controllers is a little bulky and a wire connecting the unit to the PC makes playing a bit awkward. However, the SNAP team has a wireless version in the works and is trying to resolve issues relating to the hub’s form factor and battery life.

Menu navigation is also a work in progress. At the moment options are selected using the computer which runs the games, though the team plans to create a menu interface controllable with hand gestures. It is also considering adding buttons on one of the wrist sensors.

While the system looks best suited to exergaming, the research team is exploring other uses, particularly in the medical field. “We are looking at Games for Health and are starting to actively pursue partners to help us in the area. We hope to find other partnerships such as the one we have with Dalhousie. We are looking at applications such as training and occupational therapy and hoping to find good partners in those areas,” said Whitehead.

Dr. Whitehead explained that the SNAP motion-sensing array can be fitted with more accelerometers than the four present on the standard “suit”. Having more sensors would obviously provide even more data about body position and an array of six or even eight accelerometers could greatly benefit medical-based applications in fields like physiotherapy. The team found that four sensors were optimal for gaming applications. “More sensors mean more accuracy, less sensors mean more fun.” summarized Whitehead.

The professor and his team have spent approximately 18 months developing SNAP and hope the technology can reach market in the next 12 to 18 months, partly with the support of private investors. "We're really hoping to get this into the hands of someone who can do more with it," he said. "It would be nice if someone saw the value of the technology and what we have done."

For now, SNAP enjoys the support of IndieCade, a global organization that supports independent video game development. The group showcased the technology on behalf of the SNAP team at the 2009 E3 Expo in Los Angeles. According to Whitehead, IndieCade was so impressed with SNAP that it plans to present the system again at the 2010 Game Developers Conference.

Editorial Note:
Game Forward will certainly cover the journey of the SNAP project over the next few years and we would encourage any potential investors or technology partners to contact Dr. Whitehead and his team directly. We see great potential for this technology in both the entertainment and healthcare fields and are excited to see a project like this being developed in our own backyard.