Alt.Ctrl.GDC Showcase: Octobo

"Octobo is a reactive plush octopus toy that comes with a storybook. As parents and children read the book together, they discover what Octobo wants...interact with Octobo, and see him respond."

The 2016 Game Developer's Conference will feature an exhibition called alt.ctrl.GDC dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions. Gamasutra will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase. You can find all of the interviews here.

What if your controller could play games along with you?

In a sense, that's what a team of developers at the University of Southern California are trying to explore with Octobo, an interactive storybook that's played, in part, with a plush octopus toy that reacts to player input.

It's a canny response to what Octobo lead Yuting Su sees as a sort of regrettable migration of children away from physical toys in favor of screens. While the Octobo toy has space for a tablet in its head that allows players (or their parents) to download game content from the mobile app stores, the controller itself is built of touchable, kid-friendly materials covering sensors that can detect components in the Octobo storybook.

The project was intriguing enough to merit inclusion in the Alt.Ctrl.GDC alternative controller exhibit at GDC next week. Here, Octobo developers Yuting Su and Julian Ceipek share some interesting thoughts on where Octobo came from, how it was designed and where it fits into the future of game controller design.

Who are you, how did you get here, and what was your role on this project?

Yuting: I’m Yuting Su, Creative Director and Project Lead of Octobo. Octobo is my graduate thesis game project at University of Southern California’s Interactive Media and Games Division. I came up with the core idea/design of Octobo and created the first few prototypes. I'm working on everything related to the project ­­ producing, designing, and crafting the Octobo plush.

I’m originally from Taiwan and have a background in medicine and informatics. During my studies, I cultivated an interest in designing innovative solutions that seamlessly bring technology into people's lives, which eventually brought me to USC. There, I experimented with projects that combine the digital and physical worlds. That led to the birth of Octobo.

Julian: Hi, I'm Julian Ceipek. I was born in Austria and have lived in France, England, and throughout the United States. I'm currently a second year graduate student at USC's Interactive Media and Games Division, where I met Yuting. I joined Octobo as a designer/technical consultant and have since become the project's technical director. I'm responsible for ensuring that Octobo's behavior matches our vision. In practical terms, that means I write and organize code, evaluate which electrical components to use, and build circuits.

How would you describe Octobo to someone completely unfamiliar with it?

Julian: Octobo is a reactive plush octopus toy that comes with a storybook. As parents and children read the book together, they discover what Octobo wants, give him things they find in the book, interact with Octobo, and see him respond to them.

From a technical perspective, Octobo is stuffed with sensors that can detect when kids hug him, shake his tentacles, and give him goodies they find in the accompanying storybook. Octobo's brain is an iOS/Android tablet that displays Octobo's face, plays music, and lets Octobo "talk." The brain gets information from the sensors wirelessly.

So what's your background in making games?

Yuting: I've taken a winding path in the process of becoming a game creator. I studied many different fields before I decided to join the Interactive Media and Games program at USC, but that knowledge and experience gives me a different perspective from people who have always had a focus on making games. I also have a playful attitude towards life and like trying new things.

Just to give an example, when we're eating at a restaurant, my family always complains that I try the strangest things on or off the menu, and they often won't share a plate with me! :P That attitude lets me think out of the box when I design interactive experiences.

Julian: Interactive experiences are special in that creating them requires skills from a vast number of disciplines. Taking that broad view, I could say that I've been learning how to make them for as long as I can remember. At age four, I assembled my first LEGO robot. I was five when I first took pieces from a bunch of different board games to create my own. It was terrible.

My initial foray into creating digital experiences was in elementary school, when my sister and I taught ourselves to use the fabulously well­-designed Stagecast Creator on our family's iMac. Making games was always a side hobby for me, along with reading, making videos, drawing, and exploring visual effects. In college, I acquired a BS in engineering with a concentration in computing and a thirst for designing beautiful interactive experiences. That desire brought me to USC, where I do that full­time.

What dev tools did you use to build Octobo?

Julian: We've used many different tools to make Octobo a reality. The most useful ones have been custom one­-off creations I made using node.js and various third party libraries to do things like configure/test Bluetooth communications and graphically inspect what's happening with Octobo's sensors over time. 

Octobo's software is distributed between an Arduino microcontroller and a tablet, which we program using the Arduino development environment and the Unity game engine. Neither environment has a particularly good text editor, so we use Sublime Text with the "OmniSharp" and "Arduino­like IDE" plugins.

What physical materials did you use?

Yuting: The fundamental idea of Octobo is to redesign traditional media in the digital age while preserving all of the things that make traditional media awesome. On the outside, Octobo is soft and cuddly and made from kid-­friendly materials, just like other plush toys.

Internally, he is filled with electronics. Our current prototype uses an Arduino, with multiple sensors embedded throughout Octobo's body. The storybook that comes with Octobo is made out of traditional materials but also contains removable tokens outfitted with electronic tags.

How did you come up with the concept?

Yuting: I have always had a strong attachment to tangible, physical products. I may be nostalgic, but I feel sad seeing kids become attached to digital screens and no longer spending as much time playing with physical objects. Last year, with my partner Martzi Campos, I made an interactive pop­up book, Curiouser and Curiouser! that was fortunate enough to get into E3 and GDC’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop.

While making that experience, I was amazed that we can actually bring a huge magical surprise to our players just by adding a small twist to traditional media like physical books and toys. With Octobo, I'm trying to make something even better ­ something that has a tangible interface and a seamless hybrid of physical and digital gameplay which can also enhance a social experience around the game.

A lot of people asked me, why an octopus? The initial inspiration was actually a happy accident: one day I was playing with some wires, and thought "the way they're reaching out looks very similar to tentacles!" The octopus form factor is perfect for hiding wires in its long tentacles, its big head works well to hold a display, and its symmetric body provides a consistent play experience. So far Octobo’s body has served our needs perfectly, but I would like to try testing the concept on different plush animals in the future.

How long have you spent working on this, all told?

Yuting: I’ve been brainstorming ideas for Octobo since late April 2015,when Octobo was still called October and was a space creature settling on an alien planet! The project went through many iterations before it settled into its octopus shape in fall 2015. That's also when I found Julian Ceipek to join the team as a technical consultant and Xian Lu to help out with the graphic design.

Together, we brainstormed more ideas for Octobo. Along the way, we worked with several very talented USC students ­­ Nami Melumad and Jacques Brautbar, who scored for Octobo; Justin Bortnick, who wrote the Octobo story; and Stacy Shi, who drew the concept art. We've also found collaborators outside of USC, including Liwen Lin, who illustrated Octobo’s storybook, and Vivian Lin, who consulted on the physical plush toy.

How do you think game interfaces and controllers will change over the next 5-­10 years - or how would you like them to change?

Julian: Making useful predictions is notoriously tricky, but I'll give it a shot. Expect me to be too conservative by far and not nearly conservative enough.

Everyone's obsessed with virtual and augmented reality right now, so I think we can expect to see more and more interfaces and controllers specifically designed for those environments. Most of them won't work very well and very few will deliver on their high concept promises, but a few will become popular and probably be standardized, because platform fragmentation is a huge problem for large content creators that want to reach audiences across different devices. I'm hoping that one of the standard interfaces will involve true haptic feedback, with the ability to feel the texture of virtual objects, but that seems unlikely.

The cost of custom hardware is falling rapidly and will continue to do so, and I think more and more independent makers will take advantage of that trend to create interfaces and controllers tailored to work with radical experiences like Octobo. We might even begin to see services that allow consumers to 3D-print working hardware.

Ten years is a long time in the world of technology ­­ I expect to see at least one completely new platform begin to emerge. I'm hoping that it, whatever it might be, will emphasize full tactile, kinesthetic, and spatial interaction with the physical world. Bret Victor's">The Humane Representation of Thought is worth seeing.

Go here to read more interviews with developers who will be showcasing their unique controllers at Alt.CTRL.GDC.

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