By Lance Ulanoff2014-10-06 17:46:06 UTC

[embedded content]

If you find gaming on smartphones, tablets or even 50-inch LCD screens too confining, you may appreciate Microsoft’s RoomAlive. It turns your whole room into an interactive gaming environment.

Microsoft Research actually developed RoomAlive two years ago under the far-less elegant name Beamatron and later as IllumiRoom. And though the new demonstration video released for this week’s ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) in Honolulu, Hawaii, was far more polished and immersive, it used essentially the same technology I saw at Microsoft Research in 2012.

RoomAlive is a crafty collusion of two relatively mature technologies: LCD projectors and Microsoft’s Kinect motion-tracking system. Using Kinect Fusion room-modeling technology, the Kinect builds a detailed, depth-sensitive 3D map of the environment, this includes the floor, walls, furniture and anyone who is standing inside of it.

The tech then combines the room model with a Unity game engine plug-in and a motorized projector to display imagery that augments the look of the room and interacts with people inside it. To fully cover a room or larger environment like the one in this video, Microsoft uses multiple projectors — each with its own Kinect and computer.

Microsoft Research RoomAlive uses a projector, Kinect and special software to transform a room.

Image: Microsoft Research

When I test-drove an early Beamatron device (see video below) we were driving a tiny virtual car around a room and over obstacles. Now the team has graduated to more interactive gameplay. RoomAlive will bathe an entire room in a new texture, creating a room-sized virtual environment akin to, yes, an actual Star Trek: The Next Generation-style Holodeck (that’s what they actually call it in the video). It can even run a virtual river through a room.

The most entertaining new game may be Whack-a-Mole, which expands the popular arcade game into a room-sized hunt for annoying moles to whack or shoot with special game controller.

Though still a research project, Microsoft’s decision to change the name to the sexier RoomAlive may indicate that Microsoft is gearing up to make a product out of the tech. The setup is already pretty consumer-friendly: Each camera can auto-calibrate and even figure out where it’s pointing in a room.

RoomAlive is also a potentially more attractive virtual-reality alternative to the current state of the art, which requires users to wear eye-blocking headsets that project 3D imagery before their eyes. Because headgear like Oculus Rift completely covers the eyes, users have to sit (more or less) still to use the VR headgear. With RoomAlive, the room becomes the virtual environment.

On the other hand, RoomAlive still faces significant hurdles. The necessary HD projector could list for almost $600 and that’s not including the $49 V1 Kinect, motor control and RoomAlive software package. The whole kit might still run you almost $1,000. An Xbox One costs $499. I suspect RoomAlive won’t be practical until the entire setup costs less than $400.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait until the 24th Century for it to arrive in our local Best Buy.

Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.

Image: Microsoft Research