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Pacman breaks out of the arcade

By Simon Hooper for CNN

How "Human Pacman" sees the world.
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(CNN) -- A group of Singapore-based researchers are taking Pacman out of the arcade hall of fame and setting him loose on the streets.

The virtual reality gaming system allows players to become the insatiable cookie-munching hero of the classic computer game or one of his ghostly nemeses, simply by donning a backpack and a pair of goggles.

But instead of becoming a yellow blob trapped in a low-resolution two-dimensional maze, "Human Pacman" can roam freely through real environments.

The system was designed by a team led by Dr. Adrian Cheok of the Mixed Reality Lab at the National University of Singapore, using ubiquitous computing technology.

By combining wireless local area networking with Bluetooth and GPS technology, head-mounted displays and inertia sensors, Cheok and his team were able to bring Pacman to life.

"The Human Pacman is basically a wearable computer with a head mounted display and various sensors which is sensing my body's position and as well as the head orientation so I know exactly where I am and what I'm looking at," explains Cheok.

"So when we do this we can augment the real world with the virtual world, so the Pacman world becomes part of the real world. I can see cookies in front of me and I can collect them by walking through them."

In keeping with the spirit of the original game, Pacman can turn the tables on his pursuers by picking up power pills, in this case small Bluetooth-enabled boxes placed around the actual physical gaming environment.

Human Pacman's efforts to find cookies and avoid ghosts can also be influenced by the input of online helpers who are able to see a visualization of the game on a computer screen and send messages to the player, or to his pursuers.

"There's a connection between me and someone on the Internet, so that person is kind of like my helper," said Cheok.

"They'll type in messages saying, 'Hey look, the ghost is around the block so you better turn west.'"

Whereas traditional computer gaming technology has been screen-based and mostly static, Human Pacman reflects a growing demand for more physical and interactive gaming, as demonstrated by the success of dance mat-style games.

By also incorporating elements of role-playing and cooperative strategy, Cheok hopes Human Pacman could also promote a more sociable gaming experience.

"The reason we invented this game is because current computer gaming really doesn't promote social interaction between people," said Cheok.

"The game is designed so it actually promotes playing with your friends in a very social way and a physical way. We're combining sports, social interaction and computer entertainment."

Beyond entertainment, Human Pacman's seamless merging of the virtual and real worlds has more serious possibe uses, as evidenced by the fact that the project has been financed by Singapore's military.

"We're looking at next generation soldier platforms where they'll have kind of a smart suit," said Cheok. "As the soldier moves out into the battlefield he'll get live information directly into his viewpoint using these specialized head-mounted displays."

For now however, Cheok and his team are working on developing a mobile-phone based commercially-available version of Human Pacman.

"We're aiming to take Human Pacman to more mobile devices," he said. "Within two years we'll be able to see full commercial Pacman-type games on the mobile phones."

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