It has buttons, says Sony’s PlayStation Move. You are the controller, says Microsoft’s Kinect. Pfft… that’s all child’s play. Have you ever flown a plane using only your eyes?
This was one among many questions posed by Locative Media Innovation Day, the first of four events held by the TIFF Nexus project at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Independent game developers and hardware hackers got together in an uncommon creative jam to build, from the ground up, new and innovative ways to interact with a video game.
“The Nexus project is really about bringing together diverse sectors that aren’t necessarily talking to each other – the game developers, the hardware hackers, the filmmakers, the digital media creators – as much as they’d like to,” says Public Programmes Director Shane Smith. “We saw a niche there from talking to them about what this building, the Bell Lightbox could provide, they wanted to connect with each other, and we thought this was the perfect hub to make that happen via this project.”
Take the Eye Pilot, a collaborative project from Toronto tinkerers Drawing with Frames and indie game builders Craig “Superbrothers” Adams (whom you might know from his work on Sword and Sworcery for the iPhone) and Damian Sommer.
Drawing with Frames had already been working with the EyeWriter – a device that allows people to draw by tracking movements from their eyes. It was originally made to enable people with a debilitating disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Los Angeles-based graffiti artist TEMPTONE, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2003, continued to draw with the EyeWriter, even as his body became almost entirely paralyzed.
Drawing with Frames also created an art presentation for Toronto’s Nuit Blanche overnight art hullabaloo earlier this Fall. While developing the installation, they partnered with Adams and Sommer to make a videogame using the Eyewriter.
The end result was the Eye Pilot, a Pilotwings-like game where you fly using the EyeWriter camera, while strapped into a mean-looking cockpit harness contraption. Look left, and your character will veer to the left. Look right, and likewise to the right. Over the course of a few minutes you’ll soar over a canyon, through a tunnel, and over a sparkling sea – all in an ethereal, washed-out palette reminiscent of Adams’ Sword and Sworcery game.
“It’s really accessible technology,” says Adams. “So if you can’t use your hands for some reason, you can still talk to the computer using your eye movements, which is sort of a beautiful thought.”
At another stand, created by Media Lab Toronto and game guy Alexander Martin, takes the concept of Space Invaders and makes it impossibly complex. A giant console is covered in physical knobs and switches while a screen displays gauges that give no indication of what they’re actually measuring.
Players navigate the console just to try to figure out what it does, and see any number of surprises – from firing a catastrophic death ray at incoming aliens to outright committing suicide – on the screen. It makes one feel as if they were really sitting in a sci-fi cockpit without a manual. Over the course of the night, people checking it out leave Post-it notes describing the functions they have discovered for whoever tries it out next. It’s added a social element to an old-school game – without Facebook Credits being involved.
These and other games are the result of just one part of TIFF Nexus: the Peripherals Initiative, organized by Jim and Emilie McGinley, already well-known in the local gaming scene for running their video game creation jam, TO Jam. By including hardware hackers and engineers in this endeavour, the once disparate communities are creating something new that challenges what people may consider it means to interact with games, technology and stories.
It’s just one part of the TIFF Nexus project, one of many to emanate from the new home for the Toronto International Film Festival – the Bell Lightbox at the corner of John and King Streets.
While a conference that includes indie game developers and hardware hackers might not seem the obvious fit for a film festival organization, to Smith the connection couldn’t be more obvious, or more important.
“We recognize that the future of cinema is changing. Ultimately, it’s about storytelling. It’s about narrative in all its forms. That’s what cinema is, that’s what games are, it’s what interactive media is. It all comes down to storytelling,” he says.
The Nexus project is powered by more than the indie developers and hackers – it’s partnered with the Ontario Media Development Corporation, and sponsored by design-software giant Autodesk. Ubisoft is part of the project as well to represent the AAA-budget half of the Canadian gaming scene.
Judging by the packed house for the Locative Media Innovation Day, developers, students and film buffs alike want to know where technology and local minds are taking storytelling next (despite the mouthful of a title for that day’s conference).
The next TIFF Nexus conference, Women in Film, Games and New Media, takes place on December 8. Part of that event will showcase a creative jam featuring “women creating a game that they would like to play and that they think other women would like to play,” says Smith. “Women who don’t have a background in gaming or programming, are coming together from diverse backgrounds to create a game by women for women.”