Is there anyone who doesn't think the holographic chess scene in "Star Wars" is cool? If so, I've never met them. Death Stars, Wookies and earmuff haircuts may go in and out of fashion, but everyone still wants to be able to play chess with little holographic monsters that strut atop a real table.
In May, I experienced something similar to playing that kind of game. In a small room in the middle of the packed Sony booth at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, I was introduced to a game called "The Eye of Judgment." It ran on the PlayStation 3, and of all the games I saw on the floor — the high-definition first-person shooters, the fluid fighting games, the sweaty sports ones — it was the one that felt most futuristic.
What I saw then is relevant now because Sony announced Thursday (April 26) that a PlayStation 3 camera called PlayStation Eye will be released this summer. The camera is an evolutionary step up from the PS2's EyeToy and captures higher-quality pictures, video and — thanks to a built-in microphone — sound. The Sony press release promises free packed-in "EyeCreate" software that will let users edit what they capture. And Sony execs have already said the camera will let users share video of their performance in PS3 karaoke games and, like the EyeToy before it, can track full-body movements for games that require players to get active. The company has been pushing camera innovation in gaming for some time (see "Small Men Battling On Your Coffee Table? EyeToy Could Make It A Reality").
I read Sony's announcement looking for a mention of "The Eye of Judgment." There wasn't one. I contacted a Sony rep trying to get word of "The Eye of Judgment," and she confirmed that it is coming to the U.S. this fall.
So what's so interesting about this game? The room I entered at E3 last year had two tables set in front of a big TV, each decked with an odd gadget that looked like a desk lamp. A developer from one of Sony's Japanese development studios produced a small stack of cards and placed it on one of the tables. The lamp, which had an EyeToy/Eye-style camera in it, pointed down at the table, which had a grid laid across it. In reality, all that was on the table was a card. In the version of reality that was projected by the camera onto a TV screen, a green dragon hovering over the card, flapping its wings. The developer put another card down and, on the TV screen, a pink dragon was standing on it. He moved the cards and the characters moved. He waved his hand through them and poked at them. They reacted.
The developer explained that the camera can read bar codes printed on the cards and interpret my interaction with the place where the monsters were virtually standing in order to trigger different moves. What would have looked to some people as me poking the air right above the first table would have looked to anyone watching the TV screen as me prodding a blue dragon just enough to make it breathe fire.
The first table was designed to demonstrate the "card-profile mode." I was told there would be 100 cards to collect. Moving any card under a circle projected on the screen brought up the statistical profile of the character on the screen. Watching footage of that Thursday, during the same week I'm diving deeply into the new "Pokémon" game, makes my mind race with possibilities.
The second table was for "vs. mode," a match that has two players place cards on a grid that resembles a tick-tack-toe board. Placing cards allows the player to claim a square. Placing a rival card nearby triggers a battle. Placing magic-spell cards on top of the monster cards creates an onscreen flourish of magic spells. The virtual ground shook when the developer laid a card for a casting called "Fissure of Gowly." It was an impressive move, and I don't even know who, what or where Gowly is.
A month before last year's E3, I spent a week reporting in Japan. I'd been told that card-based video games were popular in arcades. On my first evening in Tokyo, I went to an arcade, and — sure enough — gamers were placing trading cards featuring muscular male warriors and curvaceous female fighters onto special tables. Once placed, the cards were rendered on a monitor as a military unit or group of units on a battlefield. The aim of the game level I observed was to storm a heavily fortified gate. Watching an expert player was like witnessing someone good at magic tricks or three-card monte. Their hands raced across the table, sliding and switching cards as they spun their strategy.
Later in my trip, I watched a Japanese player place athlete-specific cards on a table shaped like a soccer field and then press some buttons to play a soccer game using those athletes.
While impressive, the games I saw in Japan lacked the technological pop of "The Eye of Judgment," which lets players watch their own hands interact with the virtual characters, at least in the card-profile mode. They couldn't do it, because they didn't use a camera.
So we've had card-battle games like "Magic: The Gathering" in the U.S. for years. We've had "Pokémon" too. And everyone knows that chess scene from "Star Wars." "The Eye of Judgment" appears to be designed to put that all together. I'm ready for a game of future chess.