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New 3-D camera eyes Wii-style gameplay

The success of Nintendo's Wii video game console and franchises like Activision's "Guitar Hero" have prompted companies to explore new ways to allow players to control their games.
/ Source: Reuters

The success of Nintendo's Wii video game console and franchises like Activision's "Guitar Hero" have prompted companies to explore new ways to allow players to control their games.

One of the latest is from an Israel-based technology firm that is trying to take gameplay to the most interactive level yet.

This week, digital imaging company 3DV Systems of Yokne'am, Israel, announced the creation of the ZCam, a new 3D camera for personal computers that is so sensitive to motion that players can control on-screen action by merely flicking a finger.

"The Wii has shown us the way, but this device can take things so much farther," said 3DV Chief Executive Zvika Klier during a recent demonstration for Reuters.

Because it can sense depth, the camera tracks movements in three dimensions.

After navigating through multiple screens and menus on his computer using only hand gestures, Klier launches a game where he controls an airplane by simply moving his hands from side to side, and by raising his thumbs to activate machine-guns and drop bombs.

He then switches to a boxing game, swinging in the air to deliver punches and ducking to avoid the blows of his computer opponent. This is similar to the motion control made popular by the Wii, but no controller is present. Instead, the ZCam is reading every movement.

"With this, we can really put you into the game," Klier said.

In development for two and a half years, the ZCam will be priced like similar video-game peripherals, according to Klier, who said his company is currently in discussions with several hardware and software companies about possible applications. The camera will be ready for mass production in 2008.

The Wii's success has helped Klier pitch his device.

Nintendo's machine has been the hottest game console on the market since its November, 2006 release, largely because its unique controller has made it accessible to casual audiences that hadn't been the focus of other consoles from Microsoft and Sony.

"We're in the right place now, and have the potential to ride that wave of popularity," Klier said.

Previous interactive cameras for video games have only seen limited success. Both Sony and Microsoft have experimented with camera input technologies. Sony released the EyeToy camera for its last-generation Playstation 2 console, while Microsoft has the Xbox Live Vision camera for the Xbox 360.

Despite being on the market for a year, only three games currently employ the Xbox camera as a control mechanism, while another dozen employ it as an in-game video chat device.

No matter how unique the technology, winning wide adoption is one of the major hurdles facing any new input device.

IDC video-game analyst Billy Pidgeon thinks the ZCam is an exciting step up from anything other cameras, or even the Wii, can accomplish. This can bring even more new players into the fold, if they can be convinced to actually buy it.

"Devices like this really need to have a sensible bundling strategy," Pidgeon said. "Technologies like this are exciting, but the downside is that as a peripheral to an existing install base, it will only get out to a fraction of that base."

Devices like the EyeToy and Xbox Live Vision camera haven't had a huge impact on the market.

The best example of a popular aftermarket add-on has been the "Guitar Hero" franchise, which comes packaged with a toy guitar controller. Released in late October and priced from $90 to $100, "Guitar Hero 3" racked up more than $115 million in sales in its first week on the market.

The success or failure of the ZCam will largely depend on whether it is applied to a game as popular as "Guitar Hero," though Pidgeon won't discount its potential as an entry point for casual gamers.

"I think everyone got schooled last Christmas (with the Wii) about the popularity of things that make games accessible to everyone," said Pidgeon.