[While many are familiar with SCEA's head of R&D, Dr. Richard Marks, it's through product-focused interviews or his presence on stage at Sony's E3 events -- this long-form interview gives more insight into the man behind Move and EyeToy.]
For someone who's a manager at Sony Computer Entertainment America's R&D department, Dr. Richard Marks sure has an old phone -- a beat up clamshell flip phone that one can only guess was preloaded with Snake.
"Everyone makes fun of me about it all the time," he told Gamasutra prior to a recent interview at the Las Vegas DICE Summit in February. "I can't get rid of it now. I push the button, it goes 'swoosh.' There are not many phones like that."
But Marks' old pocket technology is deceiving: as SCEA's R&D manager of special projects, he's in charge of keeping up to date on the most cutting-edge trends in science and technology, and prototyping various ways in which tech can be applied to new video gaming experiences for consumers.
Marks typically makes his public appearances on stage with Sony when the company is introducing products conceived in the R&D department, such as the EyeToy and PlayStation Eye cameras, and most recently, the motion-sensing PlayStation Move wand controller.
The R&D manager tells Gamasutra how he got from underwater robotics to the gaming industry, why he thinks the traditional gamepad will remain relevant despite motion controllers and where he thinks the competing Kinect for Xbox 360 succeeds, and where it fails.
I know a little bit about you. Sony usually carts you out when they have products to announce like the PlayStation Eye or the Move. But can you offer a little bit more of your educational and work background?
Dr. Richard Marks: Sure. Actually, the relevant background starts in high school. My parents were both teachers, and my father decided he wanted to own a business. So, he opened up a video game retail store. I would go there after school and work in the retail store. We sold Atari 2600, ColecoVision, Vectrex, Intellivision and all those things. I already played games, like most kids. But then I got exposure to a lot of games.
Was that out in California?
RM: It was in Indiana, actually.
Oh, I'm from Indiana. Fort Wayne.
RM: This was in South Bend, Mishawaka. I played games like Zork. I thought I wanted to work at a game company. Then I went to college. I thought I wanted to be a computer science major, but I got a job in computer science in the summer. It was really kind of boring, so I switched to aeronautics and astronautics engineering.
So it still had programming involved, but it's more applied programming instead of tools, maybe. And databases are not my thing, so that wasn't what I wanted to do. I switched majors to aeronautics and astronautics, and for grad school I went and did robotics. Robotics and video games are really, really overlapped.
RM: Robotics is a lot like character animation, except robotics you have real world constraints, like how much torque the motors can put out, whereas in video games you don't have those limits. Controlling a character in a game is a lot like controlling a robot, and aeronautics and astronautics are all about systems engineering. There's a lot of different systems that have to interact together.
Same with video games -- there's a lot of different things going on in a video game, in the physics system, in the animation system. So, I think a lot of the same skills work out.
Exactly what's your Ph.D. in? You're actually a doctor of what?
RM: It's aeronautics and astronautics, and it's of underwater robotics was what my thesis area was. It is using a camera to control an underwater robot automatically.
So one of the things that we did is this. Underwater cameras can't see very far because the water, you can't see through it. So we made a thing where we would take photos of the ocean floor and stitch them together automatically so you would have this one giant picture. Scientists had never seen it like that because you can't just get further back [to get a wider view].
And then the robot could navigate. You'd just click on that wherever you wanted on that map and you could drive over there using a camera to control it. Then I worked at a startup company that was using that same kind of image processing techniques but for video conferencing and stuff like that. Then we got bought by Autodesk who make AutoCAD and then we got spun out and kind of laid off.
So a lot of the Silicon Valley stuff happened, and I was at the Game Developers Conference just for fun one year, actually, and I saw PlayStation 2 and so that's when I decided to come to Sony.
I heard about that. You thought that it would be good at processing video?
RM: Yeah. I just thought there were a lot of things it could do probably that it wasn't necessarily intended to do. But the hardware was good for that, video processing in particular. Also physical simulation is another area I wanted it to work on.
So in the R&D department, it's kind of hard to understand exactly what you do. I mean, what do you do on a daily basis, sit around and think and tinker with hardware?
RM: It's not a, like there is not a real good schedule for R&D. Sometimes you have to self-impose schedules a lot. And I usually do it by attending talks or conferences or reading papers, so that I force myself to have some deadline, because usually there's not one. Sometimes there will be a deadline when you get more involved in a project.
So once we started working on Move, for example, then the deadlines are real because it's part of a real product. But before that, it's prototypes and it's trying things out. A lot of times we come in and we just try to make new game experiences, new things. Sometimes we try to make new hardware. We don't really make final hardware. We make prototype hardware out of clay or Styrofoam or something, just to feel how that would feel.
Sometimes we do support work where we're supporting the game teams, where we answer very mundane things, like why does this function do this, you know. But it's a pretty wide variety and I actually like that. That's one of the best things for me, is that you don't do the same thing every day.
The PlayStation Move has been out for a few months now. Are developers taking it where you expected? Do you think they're pushing its capabilities far enough?
RM: Well, I think the Move is intended to be a tool to enable new game experiences and make existing experiences better. So I think some of the teams are doing that really well. They're taking their existing experience they had and they're enhancing it by using Move.
So something like Killzone 3 is already a good game, and Move isn't going to just completely change Killzone 3. But you can play Killzone 3 a little bit differently now with Move and it's in a way, I think, that some people like better. But it isn't revolutionary for that kind of experience.
For other experiences that are completely new, I think [developers] are doing a good job. I think those new experiences are much more challenging for them. Because until Move was kind of finished, they didn't know exactly what its limits would be and what its capabilities would be.
So it's hard to have a game ready to go and match Move's [capabilities]. I think a lot of the game teams now, can start from scratch. Those people who've had that luxury can make and are making very innovative things.
But for the launch, it's very hard to say that they could have done anything other than what they did. They did a good job in applying the Move to the things they already were intending to make.
The one thing that we found in particular, in our group, that's really powerful with Move, is if you have one in each hand, it's a much more powerful feeling than when you have only one in one hand. You can do so much more expressive things with two. And it's a little bit of a business issue to require two because you don't want to say, "Oh, you have to have two to play this and it's twice as much money."
But I think as we're starting to see more and more families get two of them anyways, so you can have two players. I think that there will be more of innovative two-handed game experiences coming up.
You mentioned before that you're a father. It's fascinating for me to watch kids play games and use these new controllers. So what do your kids think of Move and motion control? Is there anything really that they are interested in?
RM: Yeah my kids, I have three boys and so they all are pretty sports-minded and there's lots of testosterone in what games they choose. But it's funny because one of them pretty much likes fighting games and first-person shooters -- he's the oldest. The middle one is much more story-driven. He likes a game that has a good story with it, and with the younger one it's mostly racing games. So I have a really good spectrum of kids.
With Move, the game they've probably have played the most is Sports Champions just because they can compete against each other with it, and the gladiator duel, in particular. They like it because they can compete. They've played all the different games. They like the archery quite a bit, too. Two of my kids have bows and arrows for real.
It's funny how it kind of triggers whichever one they do, it triggers them to do the other one. If they shoot their real bow, then they play archery on Move later. But they shoot on Move, and then they shoot their real bow later.
They're not the same experience, of course, but they do connect to them in their minds.
Do you think that gamers would be willing to give up the traditional gamepad, and do you think a company like Sony would take the risk of coming out with just PlayStation Move as the controller for the next generation PlayStation?
RM: I don't think that makes sense. I said that pretty much from the beginning that we're not trying to get rid of the gamepad. The gamepad is a really good abstract device. It can map to so many different things. It doesn't map one-to-one to those things, but it doesn't need to for a lot of game experiences.
But do you think it is still kind of intimidating to audiences?
RM: It is still intimidating to some audiences, some people. And so, those people might like Move better. So, I think having both offered to people kinds of people that want to play is the right choice right now. I think the DualShock, it's just better for some experiences, but the Move is better for other ones. There's just no way to combine them and just say one is the right thing to have.
There's got to be a way. You R&D guys aren't allowed to say "there's just no way," are you?
RM: [laughs] I don't mean there's no way to combine them. I mean just throwing one of them away is not the right choice.
What kind of interfaces -- not necessarily in the gaming sector -- do you keep up to speed on? Have you seen anything interesting in the science and technology sector?
RM: Yeah, that's the other thing that part of our day is, just trying to stay current with everything that's going on, attending talks, conferences, reading magazines, keeping up with academic journals, lots of different stuff like that -- surfing the web. It's hard to justify that's part of my job.
I work on the internet, so you don't have to justify that to me.
RM: Yeah, we do spend a lot of our time doing that. Also, it's really those ideas that, maybe, people haven't thought of making sense for video games, but maybe we can see that since we're in the games industry. Somebody from outside doesn't realize necessarily that an accelerometer really made sense to add to the video game world.
Is there anything right now specifically that you've seen that is kind of like, "Hey, that could be applied to gaming"?
RM: Yeah. I probably couldn't talk too much about that because if it's right around the corner it's probably something we would want to keep our own under our hat.
You can spill your guts.
RM: Sorry. Maybe, if I can think of something I've already said publicly. I think pretty much anything that lets us get the player's intent into the system more is the kind of technology that our group is focused on a lot. People call it "user interface" a lot, but I don't like that term so much. It's really that the person just wants to convey to the game what he wants to have happen, and however he can do that more effectively and easily, I think, is the kind of technology we're keeping track of.
Like brain wave sensing!
That's where it always ends up because the final end everyone thinks of, the ultimate end is the brain experience. And actually that's where my past diverges. But I think the brain interface thing is too far. Actually I think the body should stay connected. Like having your, you know, adrenaline pumping.
When you play some of the experiences like Rock Band where you break into a sweat playing the drums, those things are good. I like those things. I don't want to remove all of that. Some people just say, "If I could just get rid of all those human body problems..." I don't agree with that. I like it when it's connected. So I'd rather get more information about what they're doing. A lot of expression comes through what you do with your hands and your body, so.
I can't really talk about motion control without mentioning the Kinect. What is your impression of that, having just no controller?
That's another thing, we worked on cameras ourselves. EyeToy was meant to be a no-controller experience, mostly. And we worked on 3D cameras a lot. And I think there's a lot of great technology there. The Kinect or a camera, just like that by itself, is good but for a fairly narrow set of experiences. It's really good for dancing. There's no way you could argue that. It's great for dancing.
But it's not so good for maybe first person shooters or an RTS. Those kinds of things just don't really make as much sense for that by itself. So I think that it's a good tool, again, but it doesn't solve all the problems of video games by any stretch. So I'm happy to see any kind of innovation in these things on market.
I think it would be wrong if you thought that I didn't think Kinect was good to have happened in our industry. That [technology is] my area too. I like to see all these new things occurring, and each of the companies should keep innovating in its own way and making things better.
Kinect is kind of the first generation of that 3D camera technology too, in games at least. And maybe it would be good eventually for something like an RTS once cameras can really sense finger movement and the reaction speed is faster.
RM: You need a lot more fidelity to get the kind of control that you can already get out of the gamepad or Move even. I think to do some of the more subtle things, it's just not possible right now. And I think it might be a ways off because buttons are very exact. They know exactly what the person intends, they push a button or they don't. And that's a tough one to replace with some kind of other gesture.
For the audience that that's aiming for, they're not necessarily looking for one-to-one accuracy anyhow.
RM: But some people, I think, think that maybe the hardcore gamer could play Kinect to play a real time strategy game in a new way that's completely better than a game pad. I think that's a hard thing to do because you're losing a whole bunch of capability when you go to the interface. So how do you make it better? You could play a light version of an RTS for sure, but that would be different.
Kinect has got the microphone, too. What do you think of voice control?
RM: I think that actually [Kinect] does better in that area than I expected it to do. I tried Kinect on the voice networks, it's better than I expected. But it's tough, it's still very stiff. You have to speak the way it wants you to speak. And you have to kind of modify yourself to match it. You watch Star Trek and they just talk to the computers whenever they want, as if it's just another person.
We're still quite a ways away from it knowing whether you're talking to it or to another person in the room. And not having to really treat it so stiffly, I guess. I think that's not quite there yet. But I think it's good, I think it's a good vector. There's a lot of powerful information that can come out of voice.