ALT.CTRL.GDC Showcase: Spacebox

Spacebox turns a plain cardboard box into a controller. By playing with the flaps, players can fire weapons or bring up shields. By leaning, they can steer their ship through the cosmos.

The 2017 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.


Spacebox is designed to capture the wonder of childhood, turning an ordinary box into a means to explore the galaxy and weave through asteroids.

Spacebox takes a plain cardboard box and shapes it into a controller. By playing with the flaps, players can fire weapons or bring up shields. By leaning, they can guide their ship through the cosmos. A box and imagination are all you need to explore space and new worlds.

A team of programmers, artists, and designers at Champlain College’s Emergent Media Center put the project together, doing so by trying to capture that childhood wonder that infuse everyday objects with imaginary power.

Gamasutra spoke with Terrence Sehr, the team's faculty advisor, on how they'd hoped to get adults to use their imaginations with their gameplay experience again, as well as the magic they infused a simple cardboard box with for their ALT.CTRL.GDC exhibit.

What’s your name, and what was your role on this project?

Here is the whole team:

Terrence Sehr - faculty advisor. 
Steven Margolin - interaction designer
Robin Shafto - programmer / maker
Jake Pierce - interaction designer
Ricky Rizzo - artist
Amanda Ledwidge - artist
Devin Carlin - interaction designer
James Keats - programmer
Dennis Dysart - programmer
Gabe Pereyra - programmer
Laura Fillbach - project manager
Ken Howell - faculty advisor

We’re all members of the Sandbox Team at Champlain College’s Emergent Media Center.

How do you describe your innovative controller to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with it?

Think back to when you were a child, and a big cardboard box could become anything you wanted it to be. With a few crayons, you could transform it into a castle, a bobsled, or a spaceship. Imagine your box is a spaceship, and your teddy bear is a little alien friend who needs to find their way back home. You climb in the box with your friend and launch into space. The box flaps become your shields, and a piece of colored foil becomes your shooter button. You simply lean in any direction to steer your ship, to avoid asteroids and navigate to your little alien friend’s home planet.

What's your background in making games?

The Emergent Media Center (EMC) at Champlain College is an award-winning hotbed of digital innovation specializing in the design and production of electronic games, mobile apps, and other interactive experiences. The EMC focuses on providing experiential learning opportunities for students with the belief that emergent means of communication play a pivotal role in addressing real-world problems.  As rapidly evolving technologies reshape the world, the EMC inspires, educates, and mentors next-generation media creators, leaders, and entrepreneurs to create meaningful solutions in the areas of health, education, social justice, business, and finance.

The Sandbox team is a collection of undergraduate and graduate students led by faculty and staff, whose mission is to explore emerging technologies. Working out of the MakerLab and with the Emergent Media Center at Champlain College, their work explores intersections of art, design, and technology.  The Sandbox team explore ideas free of requirements and asks broad questions about interactivity.

What development tools did you use to build Spacebox?

We used Unity 3D for the game engine, and Maya to develop 3D assets.

What physical materials did you use to make it?

For the controller itself, we used Arduino Uno, a couple of accelerometers, a custom capacitance sensor made of aluminum foil, and a couple of vibration motors salvaged from an old game controller. We used a hunk of plywood and some foam material for the “wobble board”. And, of course, a cardboard box. We also used crayons.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

We had a team of five, including three students working on this project about half-time through the summer and fall.

How did you come up with the concept?

The EMC Sandbox Team’s mission is to explore new and novel interaction design models. We’ve built projects ranging from a virtual reality flight sim called Icarus controlled by a flying wing suit, to a full body gestural interface painting program called Graffiniti. For this project, we brainstormed several options and went with the one we were most excited about.

Spacebox captures the wonderful childhood imagination that could turn an ordinary box into anything. What made you want to capture this form of play and imagination?

This project is one step in an ongoing inquiry. We want to explore ways in which both the controller and the player have a more active role in the construction of the experience. Most controllers are intended to be neutral and ideally invisible - to perfectly translate the intentions of the player. We liked that, in this case, the controller had all these connotations and possibilities that the player’s childhood memories brought to the experience. Ideally, the player thinks, wouldn’t it be cool if my box could… and surprise, it can. We were so enchanted by this concept that it became as much play as work for us.

How did you turn a plain old cardboard box into an input device? How did you make a game around shifting around in a box?

The Sandbox Team is made up of interactive designers, artists, programmers and makers. We started with the box. We got in the box and played. We questioned what you can physically do with this box? You can be in it or under it, you can move the flaps, you can draw on it with crayons, you can cut holes in it and crawl through. We settled on a narrative, which helped determine the affordances we wanted to use, which in turn determined the behind-the-scenes electronics as well as the on-screen interaction. The team reviewed and experimented with several on-screen concepts and aesthetics.

As adults, what do you think this act of play means to us? What do you hope to touch on by having someone settle into something that likely brings back so many childhood memories? In turning the ordinary into a play device again?

Sometimes, we need reminding that play is still about imagination and human creativity. Technology gives us amazing experiences, but in our quest to make better and more complete experiences through technology, we sometimes don’t give the player’s imagination enough of a role. Adult players still have that incredible imagination within them, but they’ve gotten used to having the game makers do most of the work for them.

How do you think standard interfaces and controllers will change over the next five or ten years?

As technology disappears more seamlessly into the fabric of the stuff around us, we may see game worlds that are extended by the countless ordinary objects we interact with on a daily basis and in all aspects of our lives. Perhaps that will lead to less distinct boundaries between designer and player and enable more emergent interactions that truly are indistinguishable from magic.

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