Blog Archives

Augmenting Reality at the USC GamePipe Lab

Twice a year I attend demo days at the University of Southern California’s GamePipe Showcase to see what game engineering students in the world-renowned USC Games program have accomplished. This semi-annual event features the work of multidisciplinary, collaborative teams of programmers, artists and game designers, who demonstrate to event attendees the games they conceived, designed and built for various platforms, including work from USC’s mobile, networked artificial intelligence, immersive and advanced games courses. The event introduces students to host of industry scouts who may purchase and produce the games for mass audiences, as well as hire program graduates to develop the games of the future.

Last week I attended the Spring Showcase event hosted by USC Viterbi School of Engineering Professor Mike Zyda at the USC GamePipe Laboratory EGG-Building, where the culmination of more than a year’s worth of student teams’s collaboration, creativity and engineering is presented. This time I was particularly interested in augmented and virtual reality projects because these are hot topics in game design right now, USC has been in the forefront of virtual reality development (former GamePipe Lab instructor Laird Malamed is now Chief Operating Officer of Oculus VR, developers of the Oculus Rift VR headset) and I happen to be doing some consulting with a client in those areas.

Here are some of the projects that captured my attention last week.

Dragon Runner

Your camp has been overtaken. Fire and ash overwhelm the camp. The only thing between you and freedom is a few miles of train track…and a huge, menacing dragon!  Dragon Runner VR is a virtual reality game developed using the Samsung VR Gear and Microsoft Kinect, allowing players to step into a 3-D virtual world where they must dodge under bridges, dart around rocks, and skillfully move around their cart as you escape the fireballs.  I managed to get in my day’s exercise by dodging obstacles, crouching to avoid low-hanging barriers, and using my arms to fling fireballs at scaly enemies.

The five-person student team that developed the game have formed a company to make a meaningful impact in the emerging virtual reality and immersive environment platforms. You can learn more about the team and their projects on the Void Dimensions website.


This multiplayer game for mixed reality platforms simulates a traditional beer pong match against an opponent.  Developed by a team of seven for USC’s Advanced Mobile Devices and Game Consoles class using Project Tango, which brings spatial perception to Android devices through  advanced image processing techniques and special vision sensors, TikiPong features trippy visual effects to simulate drunkenness and add gameplay elements that are not found in traditional beer pong.

I found this game to be a lot of fun to play.  Players move their fingers along the left edge of the screen to set the trajectory and force of a ball so that it flies through a floating hoop and into a beer bottle for points.  Seeing your opponent in the game’s background adds to the social and immersive experience of the game.  To find out more about the game and the team that developed it, watch this YouTube video.

ZombieEscape VR

This zombie apocalypse virtual reality game was developed for iOS and Android using Google Cardboard. The story premise is that a global viral pandemic wipes out over 80% of the world population, causing the dead to rise and feed on the living. Players travel automatically through their environment and must shoot zombies coming towards them using three choices of guns : pistol, rifle, fire gun. Players can change weapon by looking down and clicking the menu. Different guns cause levels of damage to zombies. Players can also shoot the power-up packages to recover their health.

I found using the Google Cardboard, which is a VR headset quite literally made from cardboard into which a mobile phone running the game is mounted, to be a much more enjoyable and immersive experience than heavier headsets like the Oculus Rift. Yet while I liked the zombie apocalypse theme, I would have preferred more freedom of movement than this rail shooter game provided.

ZombieEscape VR was developed by a six-person team lead by Saksham Kashyap over a three-month period. You can learn more about the game and the team that developed it by visiting its website.


As always, the creativity and technical prowess of the USC Games students was impressive, and it was exciting to see how these kids are bending our reality to create a new gaming future.



Recall And Possession At The USC GamePipe Lab Fall 15 Demo Day

Last Thursday I attended the University of Southern California’s GamePipe Lab’s semi-annual Demo Day held at the Egg Building just outside the university’s Los Angeles campus, and yet again I was impressed by the exceptional work of some of the best and brightest game development students in the country.

For USC Viterbi School of Engineering Professor Mike Zyda and his students in the USC Games program, the Fall 2015 Demo Day event is an opportunity to show off four months’s worth of collaboration, creativity and computer design. It’s also the students’ introduction to a host of industry scouts who may purchase and publish the games when they are completed next Spring, as well as hire program graduates to design, program, and produce the games of the future. I make an effort to attend Demo Day every six months to help me set aspirations for my own students at The Los Angeles Film School.

Here are two of the games that I had the opportunity to take for a spin.


Recall: USC GamePipe Lab Fall 15 Demo Day

Recall is a virtual reality game that helps players learn what they really want to know. Actually, the students say that it is more than a game – it is a virtual reality “mind-hack.” Inspired by the spatial and imagery based mnemonic techniques of competitive memorizers, Recall is a tool to improve a player’s memory that puts them in VR “mind-palaces” constructed for their own “digital documents”. In essence, it turns your documents into playable “levels” designed for easy memorization.

The idea is the player chooses which information they would like to remember – a .PDF, .doc, .ppt, web page, etc.   Recall then slices the document into small, digestible packets and procedurally generates an explorable, interactive virtual reality world based on the amount of information in the document. When the player enters this new memory palace, they will find their sliced document in “framed” packets with associated key-objects placed along a path. This singular path will take them through their entire document.

In the demo version I tried, the goal was to find a collection of 3-D objects in a virtual reality landscape, and then later recall where on the landscape I found each object.  The graphics were rudimentary at this point in development, and I found the text “packet” associated with each item a bit hard to read, but I thought the concept was promising.  I particularly enjoyed ease of motion of the 3D headset, which received input from the game via an Android phone snapped into the front of the headset.  It was a much more comfortable experience than wearing heavy Oculus Rift headset and renewed my excitement about the potential of virtual reality games.




Possession combines that battlefield tactics of a Real-Time Strategy game with the visceral experience of a First-Person Shooter. The player commands squads of units, organizes attack and defense strategies and manages and control resources.  But what makes this game unique is that the players can put themselves in the position of a single soldier by switching game modes with a single button push.

Whether it be to put yourself in the position of a sniper to kill enemy units from across the map, go on a rampage as a super-soldier in a huge battle, command a tank to wreak havoc upon your enemy, or organize all of your forces from the comfort of your base – you not only get to command your army, you get to be the army.

Unfortunately, the concept reminds me of the old Saturday Night Live sketch about Shimmer: “It’s is both a floor wax and a dessert topping!” That’s always the danger with combining two game genres, and indeed I found it a bit disorienting to be switching between RPG and FPS modes, and there were times where I was so immersed in my own first-person conflict that I forgot about managing my troops elsewhere on the battlefield.

However, the game still has another six months to go in development, and I’m hopeful they’ll tweak the design to create a more cohesive play experience.  I was actually blown away by the technical and artistic competence displayed in just four months of development. If my own students could do that kind of work in such amount of time, I’d be very proud indeed.


I had a meeting to attend on my own campus, so I wasn’t able to try out more games that day, but you can bet I’ll be back in May to see how things progressed for these great student teams. If you’d like to find out more about these and other GamePipe student projects, please visit USC GamePipe Laboratory Fall 2015 Showcase.