Richard Marks now manages the Special Projects group of Sony Computer Entertainment US R&D, and was previously an Avionics major at MIT before getting his PhD at Stanford in the Aerospace Robotics Lab. But he's most well-known as the creator of Sony's innovative Eye Toy USB camera technology, which received the Game Innovation Spotlight Award at the GDC Game Developer's Choice Awards. We tracked him down and quizzed him on the Eye Toy's genesis, Sony's attitude to R&D, and how important hardware saturation is to having a successful peripheral.
Q: Your background (in avionics and aerospace robotics) isn't perhaps a normal videogame-related one - what made you decide to go work for a games company?
A: Well, at college, I started out as a computer scientist, and switched to avionics, because I wanted maybe more interesting real-time programming things. But when I was a kid, I used to write games for fun, and my parents owned a videogame store for a while - Atari, and Colecovision, and Vectrex, and so on. I used to play constantly, and my job as a kid was to demo games to customers. But also, I'm a pretty conservative guy, and I felt I couldn't take the risk of being at a fly-by-night small game company. So Sony's a great place for innovation, for stability, and a great place for me.
Q: What kind of hardware challenges did you have while developing the Eye Toy?
A: There's a lot of things we thought were critical. One of the factors was the update rate - the fact that the Eye Toy is 60 frames per second is a huge benefit, and not very many cameras are made to that standard, because it's just not a very high priority for webcams - you're usually looking at them at 10 frames per second anyhow. Another thing is the low light situations that gamers play in - we wanted it to work in most people's homes, and it's usually not a great lighting environment. We still have problems with that, but I think what we did was to make some good engineering trade-offs. Eye Toy isn't great at getting you in focus when you're really close, but by not being in focus when close you can get more light into the camera from the lens.
Q: It seems like Sony are very supportive of hardware R&D efforts - why do you think that is?
A: I think Japanese companies in general have a very long-term look at things, and I think that's good. There's always going to be a place where technology allows more things to happen, and I think Sony knows there's been places in the past where the games industry has had its hiccups - that's what happened to my parent's store actually, the whole market crashed. Sony has always had a heavy emphasis on R+D since I started - not all companies have that luxury, of course.
Q: Why did the Eye Toy software end up getting created at Sony's London studio, after the hardware was developed in the States?
A: Well, I'm in the research group, and our research is open to all parties, and it was really the London Studio that wanted to make a game using Eye Toy first. Another benefit was that Phil Harrison used to be the VP of R&D in America, so he knew everything about the camera work, and we became head of first-party development in Europe, he naturally understood everything I'd been doing on the research side, and had more familiarity than anyone else.
Q: Have you seen cultural differences in the ways people play Eye Toy?
A: The biggest difference I see so far is between Europe and America, actually. In Europe there's this culture where they go to the pub and come back afterwards and do stuff together, and in America everyone has to get in their cars and drive home, and they don't really do things like that. So in America it seems Eye Toy happens more at a party, at somebody's house, whereas in Europe it's much more casual. In America it tends to be much more younger-aged people too, because older people don't get together in the same way.
Q: Going forward, what kind of adoption of Eye Toy for first-party and third-party software do you see?
A: I think there will be some third-party games that use it completely. I think first-party games will still probably lead that effort. I think lots of third parties will use it as an optional accessory - an enhancement to the game. At first we may see games which use it because the developer wanted to use it - the developer downloaded the [Eye Toy software development library], it's cool to play with, and publishers won't be upset that they get extra content.
Q: It seems that innovation in terms of game peripherals - do you think this is going to change?
A: I know from the very first day I started, they told me 'Peripherals don't sell - it's impossible!' Well, not really impossible, but it's really hard - the biggest strength of the console, really, is that they're all the same. Developers have a benefit that they can write something and they know it'll work on all the systems. If you say your game is going to require a camera, only the people with a camera can play it - that's a huge limitation. But for optional add-ons like steering wheels, it works - so to use Eye Toy in an optional way, this makes sense, but to make a [third-party] game completely about Eye Toy, you need huge market penetration. In the long long-term I think cameras will become part of the platform. But that's why you haven't seen so much innovation.
Q: What future hardware innovation do you see as being especially important for games?
A: I think that microphones will become part of the system for sure. They won't completely change everything, and you won't do everything through the microphone, but it'll be there as part of something you can use. Voice recognition in the future won't be that expensive in terms of computation to use, so you can have it included basically for free. With regard to cameras, the biggest innovation that will occur is in terms of getting data out of a camera in a really rich way. We need a really good 3D sensor, and if you have that, that'll be as important as the Z-buffer is for graphics.