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EyeToy Springs From One Man's Vision

Few saw the payoff in a new video game device for the PS2 console. Now it's one of Sony's top-selling products.

January 18, 2004|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

When Richard Marks laid eyes on a PlayStation 2, his first thought was: "Wouldn't it be cool to add a camera?"

Nearly six years later, the device Marks imagined is one of Sony Corp.'s bestselling products: the $50 EyeToy, a tiny camera that enables video game players to control the action by jumping around and waving their arms while their images appear on-screen.

That EyeToy ever saw the light of day is remarkable, given that game makers are loath to risk adding expensive hardware to the stack of supposedly nifty peripherals that have flopped in the past.

"If there's one thing that's been hammered into my head over and over ... it's that peripherals don't sell, and the camera is a peripheral," said Marks, 34, a Stanford avionics PhD who built cameras that guide one of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute's underwater exploration robots.

In 1998, Marks didn't know from video game peripherals. An independent technology consultant, he wandered through the noisy labyrinth of the Game Developers Conference in San Jose one day as a way to take his mind off work. As he watched a demonstration of the PlayStation 2, which was still two years from market, his idea about the camera took hold.

"I thought it was a fun thing to work on," Marks said.

He mailed a pitch to Sony. The company called, invited Marks to visit and then offered him a job.

Marks, special projects manager for research and development, began tinkering in the Sony R&D lab in Foster City, Calif., an engineer's paradise.

The 25 programmers and engineers who work there don't make games or develop products: They write chunks of computer code that help others at Sony make better games. Before EyeToy, the lab's biggest hit was a program that makes assembly-programming language run faster on the PS2 console.

While working on other projects, Marks didn't give up on his camera idea. He bought a Web camera and hooked it up to a computer that fed video to a PS2 prototype.

Then he tried building a game. His early efforts featured a crudely animated character he called Brickman that players could push around by waving their hands. "It was so bad, I'm not even allowed to show it," Marks said.

Luckily for him, other game makers at Sony were better at graphics than he was. He borrowed some of their work and incorporated them into his project. One was a virtual pet that danced on a ball held by the player; the critter would careen with the ball's movements, jump or fall off.

Next, Marks created a program that let players cast on-screen spells by moving their arms.

Every outside developer who saw Marks' project liked it -- just not enough to take the risk of designing it for mass production, manufacturing it, building games around it and marketing it.

"I'd like to say that the idea was just so good that people couldn't resist making it," Marks said. "But I can't."

Despite its carefully managed image as an edgy industry, the $25-billion global video game business is fairly conservative. The cost of making and marketing games can run into the millions of dollars, and the memory of big failures sticks around.

Most people in the industry, for instance, either remember or have heard about the lengths Atari took in 1983 to rid itself of millions of unsold consoles and game cartridges. The company that essentially established the home video games business shipped several truckloads of merchandise straight from its production plant to a New Mexico landfill, where the stuff was crushed by steamrollers and covered with concrete.

Phil Harrison knew the legend. Harrison was Marks' boss at the Sony lab, the designated business guy who kept the engineers in check. And he thought Marks was onto something with his camera when he saw it for the first time in 1999.

"I did back flips down the office," said Harrison, who saw an opportunity to take PlayStation games to a wider audience. "For many people, the game controller is an intimidating device because it's got these 14 buttons. With this, you didn't need a controller. You could use your body to play."

Making video games more accessible is like the Holy Grail for Sony, Microsoft Corp. and Nintendo Co., the three big makers of consoles.

Each new generation of consoles is heralded by its backers as the one to bring gaming to the masses. But, as Harrison noted, the way people interact with games has changed little from the days of "Pong." For all the lush graphics and theatrical soundtracks, players still tap away at hand-held controllers and generally have to master button combinations that only a 13-year-old has time to learn.

So console makers are always looking for a technological and design breakthrough on the level of the computer mouse and graphical user interface, which made computers easy to operate for people who didn't know the arcane text commands of DOS.

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