Grad student developing special glove for video games

Grad student developing special glove for video games

Jason Skowronski balls his fingers into a fist and smashes the concrete block wall like he was knocking down a house of cards.

The special glove developed by the University of Illinois graduate student in electrical and computer engineering provides him with such super powers.

At least in the world rendered on the laptop computer screen in front of him.

If Skowronski has his way, the glove, which he began developing as his senior engineering project at the UI, may be the future of interaction with video games and video game players like Nintendo's new Wii.

"What video games are all about is involving you in another world in the most realistic way possible, or at least the most immersive way possible," Skowronski said recently.

The glove lets people reach into a game world with "their own hands," he said. "You can pick things up ... turn your hand into a fist. We think it'll be easy and natural for people."

Games already have been headed in the direction of alternative interface methods, beyond the keyboards and mice of computer titles and the hand-held controllers of game consoles – some versions of which feel like they require a college degree to operate, not to mention the extreme dexterity of youth.

The Wii, due on the market before Christmas, includes a wireless wand that could be waved and otherwise moved through space to control some of its games. "Dance Dance Revolution" (feet), "Guitar Hero" (your hands on an ersatz guitar) and "Donkey Konga" (your hands pounding a set of plastic bongo drums) are some game titles that have employed nontraditional controllers.

Skowronski believes his glove could be even better.

Think a whole new spin on "you versus Godzilla."

"It enables lots of interesting scenarios," he said.

Some of those scenarios have nothing to do with games – interpreting sign language and converting it to text, for instance.

In construction design, the glove might be used to pick up, place, shift and otherwise manipulate elements in a house plan, kind of like a virtual Lego set.

Artists might use it in digital projects, right down to molding virtual clay.

The prototype put together by Skowronski and his colleagues is a stretchy glove of Neoprene-like material with pliable bend sensors that determine how bent each joint of the hand is, and a 3-D coordinate sensor, which tracks the hand's position and orientation in space.

The UI students designed the sensors and also designed the master circuit board that collects data from them, encodes it digitally and sends it to a computer.

Software they wrote then translates that information into movements in a virtual environment.

Skowronski and fellow student Shivani Jain started working on the glove as part of a technology entrepreneurship class with the idea of using it in mobile computing, perhaps as a keyboard for your cell phone, hand-held computer or other device that you "typed on" by moving your fingers in the air. But they quickly saw that making gold of the glove was far more likely in games.

Last fall, the idea won in executive summary round of the Cozad Business Plan Competition coordinated by the Technology Entrepreneur Center at the UI. It won a Cozad student award earlier. Those honors provided some prize cash to help pay for prototyping the glove.

Eventually, the idea is to move the sensors inside the glove and get the cost down to the $99 range. Skowronski is working on patenting some of the technology and pitching it to game companies and potential investors.

He's scheduled to finish his master's degree in December and is aiming for a job with a firm such as Microsoft, where he worked this summer, or Nintendo while developing the glove on the side.