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Cardboard meets OLED as game pieces go digital

Researchers are working on electronic board games that merge the tangible aspects of board games like the Settlers of Catan with the software-generated action normally seen in strategy games such as Warcraft.

Courtesy of Microsoft Game Studios, via Queen's University

Board games are already experiencing a renaissance as they move from the tabletop to the desktop (think Lexulous and Scrabble), but researchers from Canada's Queen's University are trying to further advance the ol' board game with a technology that essentially turns each piece into a graphics-saturated mini-display, thus merging the tangible aspects of board games with software-generated action normally seen in strategy games such as World of Warcraft.

Queen's Human Media Lab Professor Roel Vertegaal and HML graduate Mike Rooke say their technology (PDF) would let groups of people play electronic games in a sociable, physical setting like they do board games: say, sitting around a table. It would also make for more immersive board gameplay, they say.

Roel Vertegaal
"This is no doubt the future of board games," says Roel Vertegaal, an associate professor at Queen's University Human Media Lab. Queen's University

Vertegaal and Rooke were scheduled to present their research Monday at MIT's Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction in Cambridge, Mass.

In the video below, the researchers demonstrate a sample application based on the multiplayer board game Settlers of Catan, in which players attempt to "settle" on the island of Catan by building cities, roads, and the like faster than other players. The game board is composed of hexagonal tiles of different land types that are laid out randomly at the beginning of each game.

At first glance, the cardboard tiles in the video look like typical white hexagons out of Settlers of Catan. But with the help of an overhead camera and projector, each piece becomes a mini-computer capable of displaying animated video images and even triggering events in adjacent tiles, such as queuing soldiers to attack.

In the video, you can also see what happens when players manipulate the tiles in various ways. When one part of the tile is lifted off the table's flat surface, troops are offloaded onto shore by "pouring" them. Rotating the tiles can change the perspective on the animated building, tree, or person being displayed.

The animation makes for more immersive gameplay, Vertegaal and Rooke say, as does using physical tiles instead of the virtual ones used in so many modified board games today. The Queen's team says board games are just one application for their hexagonal bezel-less screens, which should also be able to employ e-ink, e-paper, and OLED technology.

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