Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 19/03/2023

Holographic Tabletop Gaming

A holographic projection of a few blocks of a sci-fi city, complete with flying cars.

Tilt Five is a table-top holographic projection system. It’s very cool!

How it works:

  • An IR camera in the glasses gets tracking data from the dots at the edges of the board
  • The glasses get the display output of a PC or android device by USB 
  • Two seriously cool micro-projectors in the glasses throw the image at the board
  • The retroreflective board throws the image back into the player’s eyes
  • There’s also a controller which is tracked by the headset camera. It has a gamepad stick, buttons, and trigger, as well as having its position and rotation tracked in 3D.

That means:

  • The player sees the holograms at their in-world distance, rather than being projected onto the inside of the glasses. That makes the holograms actually appear to be in the world, rather than rendered in front of the world with clipping to give the illusion of being rendered “behind” objects. This is a big deal for preventing eye-strain for the player because you get to focus on the object at it’s actual depth. VR headsets and the Hololens force your eyeballs to decouple focus and convergence to maintain the illusion of depth, because everything is rendered an inch from your face.
  • You’re not going to see motion sickness like you would in VR. Partly because the real world is still there to keep your vestibular system feeling grounded, but also because the refresh rate on the headset is spectacular (150fps !). A lot of VR-based motion sickness is to do with marginal frame-rate causing an almost-imperceptible lag between tracking and the visuals updating.
  • Multiple headsets connected to the same device can view the board at the same time, each getting the view that makes sense for the tracked position of their headset. It’s a shared experience without needing to network the game over multiple devices.
  • The retroreflective board means the holograms are bright and the colours vibrant even in a well-lit room, something the Hololens can really struggle with.

What kinda things can you do with it?

That conceptual difference of “it’s a shared experience around a table” is where the Tilt-Five excels. It’s marketed as augmented reality for boardgames and RPGs, sort of like Battle Chess on steroids meets Roll20. You can already buy Catan, Tabletopia, and other Steam Games, and a DnD/RPG sandbox called Battle Map Studio.

Here’s a procedurally-generated island:

It’s particularly suited to a top-down style strategy map view of the world, which makes sense given the boardgame focus in development. 

Here’s a work-in-progress porting Tom Mouat’s 8” hex WW1 trench raid RPG to the Tilt Five: the little dudes are selectable by poking with the wand, and route-plan to a point on the map with a strong preference for staying in cover. You can set them to standing, crouching, or crawling with wand buttons. Guns and baddies TBD ;-)

You can also use the board as a TARDIS-like ‘well’, or window into a 3D world below the table surface that is larger than the board (but only visible through the board).

You’re still able to see and interact with the real world with the glasses on, unlike VR where you’re isolated in your own personal view. You can create a holographic dungeon for use with your physical 28mm miniatures. Or you could hook it up to:

  • Drive other projection systems: eg a Google Maps style bird table interface to pull StreetView images to a 360 projection system, using actual Google Maps, or your simulated environment
  • Visualise other projection systems: eg a strategy map style view of people in VR, as an alternative perspective to first-person view for over-the-shoulder observation and AAR. It can be maddening directing someone in VR when all you can see is what they’re currently looking at
  • Visualise 3D data, photogrammetry, CAD, or provide situational awareness like a 3D HUD

How about a nice game of thermonuclear war?

The multi-headset support means you can make multiplayer games without compromises like split-screen and hot-seat, and without needing to network computers—which is both a skillset all of its own, and an added complication when working at classification.

Is it analytically useful, beyond being very cool?

As someone who makes games for serious purposes, 99% of the time that someone asks “Can you do this in VR?” the correct answer is “Yes…but I don’t think that’s actually useful for you…” stuff isn’t just better because of immersion. Augmented reality is the same: just because you can do a thing does not mean it’s providing more value than a standard monitor or a board-and-counters physical copy of the game.

Compared to a physical game, adding a computer has obvious advantages:

  • The computer keeps score, and can show you lots of complex data in ways that gets very messy and complicated if you’re doing things by hand
  • Hidden information can exist on the same plot, and we can very easily control who sees what, rather than having to use compromises like a kriegspiel where you can see the blocks but just don’t know what units they are, or maintain two plots and hope they don’t get out of sync
  • More intuitive displays of information: you can show dynamic information, like see that a unit is dug-in, firing, or reloading directly with the artwork, rather than having to use abstractions like turning the piece sideways, or this coloured block on a tracker that’s somewhere else on the table. You can also call up context-relevant rules and stats very easily, and without giving away information to the other side about your intention when you start measuring ranges and line of sight.

But these are things that you can achieve on a standard monitor. Can a Tilt Five do more, or differently?

Probably the biggest thing it does is that social aspect: you get all the benefits of four players with their own laptop screens, except that it’s all happening around the same board. All the players are seeing the same game-space but it’s still possible to control individually what they see—I can set the culling masks so that enemy units don’t render for you unless your units have LOS to them, and you get your own user interface which shows only the stats you should know about. Whether this is a competitive or cooperative game, you’re all looking at the same board and able to point out things to each other directly, rather than having to talk someone to pointing their screen in the right direction to see what you’re seeing. 

The other clear advantage is the 3D. It’s very compelling in ways that are hard to convey through 2D captures. The parallax effect is magical. You can share a 3D tabletop setup across physical space with a networked game—instead of having one physical board and distributed players getting only a webcam view of the game, as many of the players as you like can have holographic boards.

In terms of interface, there’s just something more intuitive about being able to crane your head to look at where you want to place a piece and tap the spot with the wand, instead of wrestling with camera position and rotations to get the view to click with a mouse. This might seem like a trivial thing to folks who play a lot of real-time strategy games, but it’s a big barrier to entry for folks who don’t (who are often our customers). I saw this first hand using VR with the Army: give a soldier a VR controller for a shooting game and there’s a “what buttons do I press?” panic; give them a Nerf rifle converted into a VR controller and they visibly relax because they know how to use a gun.

Finally, there’s the wow-factor for communicating with your audience either during the game or in AAR. Sometimes you want to put your data’s best coat and gloves on. Some people equate how good a game looks with how robust its findings are, and will take your recommendations more seriously for being a wizzy hologram. (I know, it makes me sad too.) Sometimes the game needs to feel compelling for people to engage with you, and there is nothing wrong with using cool tech for the engagement value.

NATO wargame design challenge

NATO is sponsoring a wargame design challenge, intended to identify innovative ways to design wargames in support of NATO operations. The winners will be invited to an Award Ceremony at the Wargaming Initiative for NATO 2023 (Rome, 26-27 Jun 2023) at NATO’s expense. The winning solution will also receive design and/or development support from the NATO Innovation Hub and Fight Club International.

The contest is not asking for a fully-developed wargame, but rather a detailed proposal that would address:

  • purpose
  • intended impact
  • target audience
  • players
  • scenario
  • dimensions and domains
  • objectives and winning conditions
  • game system
  • game space
  • gameplay
  • core mechanics and concepts
  • other mechanics
  • adjudication and combat scoring
  • innovation

Proposals will be assessed for innovation, usefulness, feasibility, and model accuracy. Full information can be found at the link above.

The submission deadline in 30 April 2023. The NATO Wargame Design Challenge is cosponsored by Fight Club International, NATO Allied Command Transformation, and the NATO Innovation Hub, and is part of the Wargaming Initiative for NATO (WIN). A PAXsims report on the WIN 22 conference in Paris can be found here.

%d bloggers like this: