ePawn Arena: Bringing Back the “Board” in Digital Board Games

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ePawn Arena concept.

As you can tell from reading my posts, I’m more of a board gamer than a video gamer. Don’t get me wrong; I really do enjoy playing video games (and you can’t take my iPad from me), but I still prefer sitting around a table with a bunch of people and moving physical bits around. (As Daniel Solis put it, “My favorite game console is a table and chairs.”) That said, I also love the ability to play games like Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, and Ascension against opponents from not just around the country but around the world.

Nearly two years ago I wrote about some experiments to simulate OLED screens in board game tiles, and then at the beginning of this year I reflected some more on the future of board games taking into consideration technologies like the iPad and the Microsoft Surface table. I think that as board game companies have been finding ways to make the transition to digital games, it’s been interesting to see what clicks and what doesn’t — what feels like playing a board game. It’s great when the digital version is able to track things that are cumbersome to manage physically, but there’s also a tradeoff when you lose the physicality of the bits and pieces. And even though the iPad’s larger screen certainly feels closer to playing a board game than a tiny smartphone screen, you’re rarely going to have four people crowded around an iPad on the table, playing a board game together.

Those are, as it turns out, the same issues that inspired Christophe Duteil and Valentin Lefevre to form ePawn and create a new digital game peripheral, the ePawn Arena. The Paris-based ePawn was formed last fall for the purpose of developing the Arena, which is a display screen that incorporates real-time motion-tracking technology, allowing you to move physical pawns and pieces on the surface of a screen as part of a digital game.

Here’s a little teaser video showing some of the Arena’s capabilities:

This Monday I had the opportunity to speak with Duteil (CEO) and Lefevre (CTO) via Skype, and they shared about the company and their new device. Of course, I had to settle for a video demonstration, but they’ll also be making an appearance at CES 2012 in Las Vegas in January to show off the Arena and its capabilities.

Here’s what the Arena is, in a nutshell: something in between a Microsoft Surface table and the Cars 2 AppMATes — it’s big enough (at about 26″) to feel like a board game and have people sit around it, but is designed to be both portable and affordable. It is not a computing device; it is a display screen that has ePawn’s proprietary tech layered underneath it, which allows it to track tags that are embedded in pawns and other physical objects. They explained that it seems a little like RFID, but RFID doesn’t allow for real-time tracking as smoothly and quickly as they wanted, so this is something else entirely.

The Arena can track multiple objects on its surface, including orientation, as Duteil and Lefevre demonstrated with some pawns on a dungeon-like map (similar to the concept art shown above). Then they switched to an air hockey app, and used two tag-embedded paddles to play air hockey on the surface. Since the device itself is a peripheral only, the idea is that you plug it into a computer or smartphone or iPad, and then the Arena sends input information back to the computer. I have to admit, just this far into the conversation I was already pretty excited about the possibilities.

But then Lefevre explained that their technology is actually thin and flexible — right now the limiting factor is the screen itself, which makes up most of the bulk of the Arena. He said that if flexible OLED screens become available to consumers, their technology could actually work with that as well — imagine being able to roll out a sheet, hook it up to your iPhone, and display a dungeon map while you DM an encounter. In addition, he explained that they’re also looking into the ability to have self-actuated pawns. This is down the road, of course, but the idea is that if, say, you’re playing a game of chess with somebody on the other side of the continent, they could move a physical pawn on their board, and then that same pawn would move on your board.

That sort of blew my mind.

Also, they said that their technology is small enough that it could be built into any screen. Imagine a flatscreen TV that had this motion-tracking ability built-in: after watching your favorite TV show and playing some Xbox, you tip it back on a hinge and play a game of Last Night on Earth with your pals in three different states, and the screen can recognize where all the zombies are cropping up to get you. On the other side of the coin, the motion-tracking tech could be used without a screen, to track movements on a traditional board (using tagged pieces) on an iPad or a computer:

Ok, yes, you might make the argument that all of this is totally unnecessary and that a virtual representation of a pawn or game piece is just fine. You’re right — as far as having a game that works, you don’t need any of that. But for that matter, you don’t really need nice components for any board game for the mechanics to work — graphics, images, fancy miniatures are all just surface details, right? But those surface details are what you become immersed in the game. Picking up a figurine and moving it around on a surface is part of what we think of as playing a game. Like it or not, our brains are wired for tactile play. Just look at Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventures with its miniatures and the “portal.” Are those necessary to the experience of playing a video game? Of course not — but there’s something that appeals to us about using a physical device to unlock a digital door.

Of course, ePawn isn’t quite there yet. They’re aiming for a second-quarter release in 2012, and expect the Arena to sell for about $300-400. While that does seem a bit steep, compared to something like the Microsoft Surface Table or the iPad itself, it’s at least within reach for some. It’s also reminiscent of the Wacom Cintiq tablet monitor, the cheapest of which comes in at about $1,000. Granted, it’s a different type of tech that addresses different requirements, but it’ll be an impressive feat if they can make it happen.

It’s certainly too early to tell if the ePawn Arena (or anything similar to it) will feature prominently in the future of board games. But I certainly hope that app developers take note and play with the possibilities. I’d love to see what some creative digital board game designers could do with it.

Visit ePawn’s website for more info, and be sure to check out some of their other prototype videos.

If you’re attending CES in January, be sure to look for ePawn and check out the Arena. Sadly, nobody’s offered to watch my kids and fly me out to Vegas for a few days, so I’ll have to wait a bit longer to see it in person.

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