Next-Gen Video Games Will See Through Walls

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 11 2013 5:15 PM

Next-Gen Video Games Will See Through Walls

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Someday, these kids will consider this technology quaint.

Photo by Larry French/Getty Images for Microsoft

Today’s video game industry is all about immersion. Gamers want like-real graphics, endorphin-inducing soundtracks, celebrity voice-overs, decision-based gameplay, destructible environments, and AI that adapts. And while the Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect have allowed us to get off the couch and use our bodies as controllers, current technology obviously has its limits. But what if your whole house was a playable environment?

That’s the promise of a new technology out of MIT. Using radio waves, researchers there have created an antennae system called WiTrack that can map the movements of a human in the next room.

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When I talked to Dina Katabi, co-director of MIT’s Center for Wireless Networks and Mobile Computing, she explained that the goal was to create a system designed for everyday people. WiTrack’s radio signal is just 1 percent as strong as WiFi and 0.1 percent of your smartphone’s signal, yet it can track movements with surprising accuracy—within the width of a human hand.

Katabi and her team—which includes students Fadel Adib and Zach Kebelac as well as fellow MIT professor Robert Miller—believe the technology could one day be layered into existing motion-gaming technology to create a more immersive experience.

“Xbox Kinect uses infrared, which does not traverse walls, so if you’re ducking behind a couch it will lose you because it doesn’t see you anymore,” Katabi said. “With this technology, you’ll one day be able to use the furniture and walls around you to avoid being shot. You’re still part of the game, it can track you.”

WiTrack uses just one antenna that transmits radio waves and three receiver antennae to receive the waves that bounce back. Computer algorithms interpret the information and use it to create 3-D projections of what it picks up in the span of just 75 milliseconds. Best of all, you needn’t hold or wear anything special—the WiTrack simply knows you’re there.

Unfortunately for gamers, the WiTrack is still in early phases and can currently track only one human at a time, but the team is confident this problem can be worked out as the technology progresses. (This is probably less unfortunate for whoever’s using the bathroom when you decide to play Call of Duty.) Even with its current limitations, it’s pretty wild to watch the WiTrack respond to commands given by a human in another room. You can see the device at work in the video below where a test subject turns out lights with a flick of the wrist like he’s using Dumbledore’s Deluminator.

Obviously, any relatively low-cost, low-energy device that can see through walls raises concerns of privacy. Enterprising hackers have already done all sorts of crazy stuff with the Kinect, so who knows what we can expect if the WiTrack were to go public. (Folks at Microsoft have shown interest in the technology, according to Katabi.)  

Perhaps it’ll come as some small consolation that Katabi says they’ve already developed blocking signals as a countermeasure. Though if I know gaming companies, you’ll have to pay extra for that.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

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