Zi Ye and Hammad Khalid from the Human Media Lab at Queen's University in Canada have created a truly flexible, portable gaming interface called Project Cobra. Users of the system interact with images projected onto a handheld board by physically bending and twisting sections or applying pressure to areas containing sensors.

The idea for Project Cobra was born when Ye and Khalid noted that the focus for stationary gaming hardware developers had been moving away from "maximizing graphical power to creating new, more natural methods of interaction for players." Examples of this new breed of systems include Nintendo’s Wii Remote, Sony’s PlayStation Eyetoy, and Microsoft’s Project Natal. What was lacking was a similar mobile gaming solution.

Some strides in the right direction have been made with such devices as Nintendo's DS and even Apple's iPhone, but none provide the level of physical interaction that the creators of Cobra were looking for. "In this project, we envisioned a flexible, handheld surface that players could twist and bend in order to provide input without requiring fast movements or obstruction of the display" the developers stated.

Personal gaming interaction

The Project Cobra system consists of a pico projector mounted on the strap of a regular laptop bag hung from the gamer's shoulder. This shoots an image onto a flat piece of plastic board held out in front. The laptop bag also holds a netbook or laptop which runs the game, giving users the level of freedom offered by handheld devices whilst also benefiting from the processing power generated by a larger mobile unit.

The board, which acts as both a display and an input device, is made up of two plastic sheets, thin enough to be flexible but sturdy enough to snap back into place and not sag if held in one hand. Inside the plastic sheet sandwich are three infrared LEDs. These help a customized Wiimote camera mounted above the pico projector keep track of the board’s position and orientation relative to the player. The housing also contains four bidirectional bend sensors and two pressure sensors controlled by an Arduino Bluetooth control board.

As the user enters gameplay, the sensors pick up any bending or pressure from the gamer and sends the information wirelessly to the netbook or laptop controlling the game. So bending a corner of the board forward could, for instance, power up a sword, and releasing or bending it back could then bring down all the force of hell on a once mighty opponent!

A flexible future

As the Cobra system benefits from multiple analog inputs, game developers could insert numerous unique gestures into game mechanics. The portable technology is also open for further sensor implementation which could see the whole board being mapped with control zones. The technology need not be limited to gaming environments, of course. Controlling video playback or mixing audio or panning, tilting and zooming through three dimensional landscapes are all possible future applications for the flexible, mobile display interface.

The creators from the Human Media Lab at Queen's University in Canada recently demonstrated Project Cobra at the Computer-Human Interface conference in Atlanta.

View gallery - 6 images