Board games aren’t necessarily bound to become obsolete - at least, not if researchers at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada have anything to say about it. They will change, however. Queen’s Human Media Lab (HML) recently unveiled a prototype board game that uses traditional flat cardboard tiles (i.e: cards), but the images on those tiles are projected onto them by an overlooking digital projector. The images stay on the tiles as they’re moved around by the players, courtesy of an overlooking camera that tracks their movements. This means that the tiles could display moving video, that their display could change entirely depending on what’s happening in the game, or that it could be customized by the players. Monopoly night may never be the same.

The technology was developed by HML associate professor Roel Vertegaal and Queen’s School of Computing grad Mike Rooke. They applied it to the existing board game Settlers of Catan, in which players compete to colonize the island of Catan. Game play, in their version at least, consists of moving hexagonal tiles around on a flat tabletop, making it an ideal candidate.

Each tile is marked with seven infrared markers, one in the center and one at each corner. These markers are what allow the overhead infrared camera to track their movements, which in turn tells the projector, via a computer, where to move its projected display. There is no limit to the number of tiles that can be used, as long as they fall within the camera’s field of view. The technology allows the players do to some interesting things:

  • If a player is wearing an IR marker on their finger, they can select a tile simply by pointing to it
  • They can change the character of a tile by rotating or sliding it
  • By picking up a tile and tilting it, they can “pour” its content into another tile
  • By picking up a tile and making a flinging motion with it, they can “throw” its content across the table and onto another tile
  • They can reveal a menu on the tile by putting their finger over its middle marker for more than one second

While regular people aren’t likely to be setting up cameras and projectors, it is Vertegaal’s hope that within five to ten years, the development of thin-film Organic LED (OLED) screens will make the technology more practical - OLED utilizes self-luminous diodes, so no backlight is necessary. Such technology could also be used in a variety of other applications, turning virtually any object into an interactive device.

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