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Alt.Ctrl.GDC Showcase: Living Orb

Living Orb, a manipulatable ball of LEDs, offers players a variety of games to play with light and rotation, as well as opportunities for other devs to make their own games from it.

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 22, 2018

15 Min Read

The 2018 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.

Living Orb a manipulatable ball of LEDs, offers players a variety of games to play with light and rotation, as well as opportunities for other devs to make their own games from it. Designed to inspire creativity in those who use it, Living Orb looks to not only play some games through moving it, but also get developers to create their own games for the unique device.

Jonathan Giroux, developer of Living Orb, spoke with Gamasutra about the challenges of creating this ball of lights, what sort of games they've designed for it, and why he made it easy for other developers to make their own games for it.

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

I’m Jonathan Giroux. I started this project on my own, so I designed and built the device, and coded the software part. Actually, I’m referring to the first prototype I’ve made, because the project is meant to be open source. Also, some friends joined in building a second prototype. I’m now focusing on delivering the blueprints, making tutorials, etc. so everybody could easily make their own version. Hopefully, a community of makers and game developers will emerge.

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

In brief, it’s a luminous ball, much like a spherical screen, that you hold in your hands. There are 162 LEDs over the entire surface, which cover the ball with colors. Thanks to sensors, the LEDs may react depending on the sphere’s rotation. Simply put, you play by spinning it.

Actually, this interaction between rotation and colors, which is essentially a game, is customizable. Users can program their own games. In that matter, the Living Orb is rather a game console - a toy which can support many games. Non-interactive programs are also possible; they are just games which take no input, and show some colored animations on the sphere.

Soon, people will be able to upload their games and download others’ creation through a website - a community “store”. I hope that by exchanging their ideas, game developers will be able to explore the device and find new, unique gameplay.

What's your background in making games?

Making interactive experiences has always been part of me. I started programming for that when I was eight. I worked at Gameforge during my studies, and I’ve been working at Ubisoft for four years. These have been great life experiences to realize what it takes to actually make a project, within a team, with time and budget constraints, etc.

I’ve also being participating to game jams for years, and besides my work, I continued personal projects. This allowed me to search furthermore on what a game is, as well as why we make them. And I learnt about art. Usually, when you talk to people about art and games, they would imagine art assets in the games, like beautiful graphics or epic musics. I learnt that games in themselves could be art. They can reflect on the current world, make people think about political issues, or convey human feelings. That’s the kind of experiences I want to make, and I’m leaving Ubisoft to dedicate more time to that.

What development tools did you use to build Living Orb?

Basically, game development is a subset of software development, where you have to take into account the user inputs in real-time. In this, some specific ways of doing things can emerge, like with game engines like Unity. In the case of the Living Orb, it’s a lot closer to the electronic Do-It-Yourself approach. Inside the device, there is a Raspberry Pi, which is a credit-card-sized micro-computer. There are also sensors in order to know the device’s rotation, which the computer can communicate with.

My program goes in a loop: query the sensors, compute the current orientation, compute some game logics according to the orientation, and output the result on LEDs. That’s my game engine. And in order to develop that, you just need classical software development tools: a text editor and a C++ compiler.

However, that’s low-level stuff, and I don’t expect that game designers could cope with that. I’m thinking of making a small batch of devices ready for use, perhaps through a crowdfunding campaign. Thus, people would only have to program the game logic, which is done in Lua. It’s an easy-to-learn language, well-known in game development. Every frame, that is, once every LED has been refreshed, a function is called to update the LEDs’ color. No toolchain is required for that, thanks to a web interface. This is really easy to do, and I want to make anyone capable of doing simple games.

What physical materials did you use to make it?

The first prototype was very quick and dirty. I just bought some LED strips on the Internet, a polystyrene ball in an art supply store, and let’s go. I carved the ball on the outside to glue the LEDs. The electronics was taped on the interior. It was horribly done. I even exhibited this version.

The second prototype mainly uses the same materials, but is a lot safer. The LEDs are inside the sphere, so the manipulation of the device cannot disconnect them. They are also covered by 3D-printed pieces in order to diffuse the light, because they are very intense when seen directly, and this also makes the device more elegant. The electronic parts are now attached on an internal structure, thus it’s more stable.

Right now, with the help of friends, I’m building a version with a wooden ball, rather than a polystyrene one, that will make the device even prettier. And a cube-shaped version, surely with laser cut wood, that will yet again offer new gameplays. I hope to get them both ready for the GDC!

How much time have you spent working on the game?

Sadly, not enough. My daily job at Ubisoft and my other activities allow little time for this project; I had to take days off to work on it. I think the first prototype took a week, and the second one took a couple of days since the software was already done.

How did you come up with the concept?

Clearly, Line Wobbler showed me it was possible to make a complex game just out of LEDs. I met Robin, the author of Line Wobbler, for the first time at the Zoo Machine 2015, which was a game jam oriented towards alternative controllers. I made my first alternative controller game there. It showed me it was a relevant approach, it was not difficult at all, and it’s even more fun to build crazy things rather than just staying in front of a keyboard. So, I was willing to make other tangible games. I bought similar LEDs just to have some in stock.

Later, discussing with a friend, surely about the difficulty to distribute alternative controller games and to make people play them, I imagined an autonomous device, without any computer beside it, nor any wire. The players would hold it in their hands, and because of that, the rotation of the device would be important, as well as displaying feedback all around it. Thus the idea of a ball covered by LEDs came naturally.

What drew you to create an interface that was beautiful in and of itself, without even having any gameplay function?

It turned out to be good-looking, but this was not planned! At the beginning, I only wanted to make a game with colors. I like colors - they really appeal me - but I have not mastered them yet, so I still tend to put a lot of colors together that do not suit each other well. 

Anyway, the goal was to play with colors, which means, like for Line Wobbler, to play with a vocabulary of colors that the player must discover.

I presented Living Orb for the first time at a demo party - roughly speaking, a digital art festival. People tried out the device with a Pac-Man-like game. All around the ball, some uniformly spaced white LEDs acted as pills. And the room was very dark. The sphere in itself almost disappeared, only to diffuse points of light, almost nebula-like, in the air. The musical artist that was going to perform asked me to have it on stage, so I quickly programed a non-interactive chase effect. This was really great to see.

Despite this unexpected result, the past prototypes were only technical. Now that the concept is somewhat validated, the device appearance is becoming more important. Many people told me that it could be used solely as decoration. Although it was meant to be interactive, I’m willing to open it to this usage.

You have taken steps to help players make their own Living Orb and games with it. Why have you done this?

Before going to the university, I was living in my small hometown in the countryside. Software development and related communities were not a topic there. I knew only one friend who was also interested in coding, so I spent a lot of times on solitary projects. Although I learned a lot on a technical side, I didn’t learn anything about sharing code. I used open source software because it was free of charge.

At university, I discovered that I wasn’t alone! I learned about team dynamics and realized that any project benefits from the collaboration of several people. I now understand that opening projects, in addition to spreading knowledge, improving its code quality, etc. is also a way to inspire people with new ideas, and perhaps to get new ideas in return. No ideas come from nowhere: even the greatest artists draw on others’ work.

I admit that after the first prototype, I wondered if I should patent the device, or have similar protections, but I quickly discarded these options. I realized I’m actually looking at the opposite of protection; I’m looking for exploration. Come on, take my project and make it evolve in any direction! There is no doubt people will invent games that I couldn’t have imagined. I’m totally fine with someone making a cat food dispenser out of my project. And perhaps this will inspire me a new project about nature protection. Who knows?

What sorts of games suit the Living Orb? What ways to play with it have you already designed yourself?

It is important to see that it’s not a 2D screen projected onto a sphere. Usually, 2D games are made with notions of X and Y axes. In the Living Orb, these notions do not exist. There are no directions on the sphere surface. As a game programmer on this platform, you have access to the list of LEDs, and for each LED, its position (taking into account the device’s rotation) and the list of its neighbors. In return, you can assign them colors. That’s all.

And this is intentional. I don’t want to give the impression that it would be the same as programming a 2D game. They have to be consciously designed for this device. Sure, you can use a Mercator projection, but I advise against that: it wouldn’t take the whole potential of the device. It is meant to be turned in all directions. Moreover, I observed that once people get into the games, they lose their sense of up and down. I’m sure a game could trick them into thinking that the top points towards the ground.

The snake game takes a new meaning when the tail is long enough and goes fully around the sphere. If the snake goes forward, it would hit into itself, and can avoid its tail by either turning into the left hemisphere or into the right one. So, you’re no longer stuck within the screen boundaries, but entirely by the walls you traced.

Another classical game I made is the maze, where you have to reach the exit by following paths. Your character is fixed, it always stays on the top. Thus to make the character walk in on direction, you actually rotate the ball in the opposite direction. This is a nice introduction to the device I show at exhibitions. Some people get it instantaneously and some others have a hard time to assimilate the unusual controls.

What thoughts went into creating an interface designed to inspire creativity in players?

I think the most important thing is a matter of trust, of confidence, of being in control. For me, this is a fundamental basis that users shall rely on in order to build something bigger. If they can’t trust the framework, they will not let their creativity wander, they will be limited by fear of uncertainty; it will look like the framework may have its free will, at random.

However, being DIY means that things can go wrong all the time, physically above all. Sometimes, an LED may stop working, and I don’t know why, I haven’t done anything special. This is very frustrating. Ultimately, the device is as robust as its components allow it to be. While I want to make the device as stable as possible, I can’t possibly be in control of everything. But when something goes wrong, you also have the tools to fix it yourself. It’s also the strength of the open source - there is no mystery on the components, their purposes, and how they are connected together.

Trust materializes as simplicity. The device itself has few features, and they work autonomously. When I look at the maze game, with a yellow light staying at the top whatever the rotation, with blue lights moving around, I almost feel like watching an aquarium, a sphere full of water that you can spin around but the water does not move. Of course the inner workings are complex and involve sensors, programs on Linux, and so on, but the result looks almost organic.

The interface for programming games is also dead simple, and allows to play the game instantaneously. This reactivity tells the users that they are in control of the device. They can quickly iterate on their designs, the device does not slow them down.

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

In their mechanisms, I think they will stay the same for a long time. Unless some technology manages to get into our mind, pushing buttons is the simplest way to communicate with a machine.

I have the feeling that new generations are looking for meaningful life experiences. At least, this has been my observations of my friends and myself over the years. Maybe we are fortunate enough to have received values, ethics, and desires for change and for actions, that we now want to shape the world we live in, rather than letting it limit us. This implies choosing the way we consume. Sources of fossil energies will be depleted in a few years. The global warming is steadily increasing. Veganism and eco-friendly arts and crafts are getting trendy.

Meanwhile, these generations grew up with video games - again I’m talking within my western society. This medium is no innovation for them. It has always been there. Internet, smartphones, and now virtual-reality headsets have changed our physical perception of the world.

So, I see the revival of local multiplayer games and alternative controllers as a return to the roots of play. Both are not new. Early video games were essentially multiplayer, in their mechanisms or in their usage. Operation was released in 1965 and already fits in the definition of alternative controllers. With remastered graphics, it could even be presented at the next Alt.Ctrl.GDC! Joking aside, through this comeback, I feel that consumers say no to the AAA titles, and are looking for a meaningful play, connected with their friends and to the real world. They experience the game directly, rather than through a screen and a virtual avatar.

Social networks are already a materialization of the needs to relate to each other, and interfaces took them into account. It’s pretty usual for a website to allow logging in via the Facebook account, and to share content to some others. Even the PS4 controller has a Share button.

However, I’m talking here about something bigger. Interfaces and controllers would have to leave the users alone, at least so that they feel alone, master of themselves, empowered, with the interfaces being unnoticed. They would have to make people meet each other, and then disappear.

I think Nintendo has already made one step in this directorion as they recently unveiled Labo. Nintendo is constantly trying to innovate, in both their products and in their games, and I really admire them. By taking the DIY look and feel, they make the players feel empowered. I clearly imagine the success when parents buy cardboard for their children. The latter would construct the game and think they made it as a whole, the interactivity magically appearing. In my opinion, this is the main goal of this product, as a token in the parent-child relationship. I doubt in the intrinsic play qualities of the product, because the Joy-Cons are very limited, as shown by 1, 2, Switch. Therefore, I expect that the games will offer something more than just mechanics. Thankfully, Nintendo is good at that.

However, even this product will hit another limit. Cardboard as a material looks eco-friendly. I can’t say if it really is or not, because of how trees are transported and manufactured, the inks, and so on, but the Switch, as well as any other console or smartphone, is definitely not. The Living Orb, sadly, is no better. All our western comfort is based on an ecological debt. We use metals, even rare earths, which are a disaster to harvest and are poorly recycled. For some of them, it is estimated that their availabilities can reach a peak within a few decades. We have to slow down our consumption. Again, this may come as we shift our focus towards less consumption but more meaningful experiences.

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