Getting Down to Business Playing Games

Video games are big business.
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Game Room Systems Move from an Afterthought to the Forefront

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APW’s Dave Cartier said his company always takes special care to provide comfortable seating, proper floor space for action games, ease of operation, and lighting control in the typically smaller spaces set aside for game playing. In one recent project, the integrator completed a triple-screen viewing space for a client, used primarily for gaming and football game watching.

Video games are big business. According to the Entertainment Software Association, nearly threequarters of all American households play video games. They spent $25.1 billion on them and their related hardware and accessories in 2010. Not surprisingly, more American households are allocating more space to game playing, and that’s become an opportunity for residential AV systems professionals, who are finding ways to integrate gaming systems into home designs, particularly home theaters.

“More of our clients are asking about how they can get video game playing into their homes,” reported Josh Christian, vice president of marketing at DSI Entertainment Systems in the Los Angeles area, who adds that his company has included video games as part of its checklist for customers during the design phase of projects. “Games have become a very good business, especially at the high end of the market.”

We certainly include gaming as a part of our pitch,” said Dave Cartier, president, of APW Custom Home Theatres in Chatham, Ontario. “Many older clients are introduced to gaming by us, in the form of a simple Wii system to start out. Many Boomer clients end up reporting back to us that weekly Wii bowling parties are becoming a winter staple in the area.”

Most of the time, the home theater is called upon to share space with video games. As a result, Christian said, “The biggest challenge has been how best to integrate video games with home theaters but without compromising the performance of either one.”

Moving the Front Row Back

The three major game platforms, Microsoft’s Xbox, Nintendo’s Wii, and Sony’s Playstation, have sensor systems that allow gesture recognition and interpretation. The Xbox’s Kinect system, for instance, uses Rare’s Light Coding 3D scanner range camera technology that allows hands-free control via an IR projector and camera, CMOS sensor, and a special microchip to track the movement of objects and individuals in three dimensions. The Kinect sensor itself is a horizontal bar connected to a small base with a motorized pivot and is designed for positioning lengthwise above or below the video display. The device features a camera, depth sensor, and multiarray microphone running proprietary software that provides full-body motion capture, facial recognition, and voice recognition capabilities. Thus, a clear and unimpeded line of sight between their optical receptors and the game players is crucial.

Some AV integrators will either move the first row of theater seating back or utilize removable seating for the first row, to allow sufficient space for game playing in front of the main screen, and to provide a clear field of view for the sensor system in the front portion of the theater. According to a website that posted some reverse-engineered data on the Kinect’s performance, the Kinect sensor has a practical range limit of 3.9 to 11 feet, with an area required to play of roughly 64 square feet, although the sensor can maintain tracking through an extended range of up to approximately 20 feet. The sensor has an angular field of view of 57 degrees horizontally and 43 degrees vertically, while the motorized pivot is capable of tilting the sensor up to 27 degrees either up or down. Fortunately, the Kinect is designed to operate under minimal lighting conditions. The sensing range of the CMOS depth sensor is adjustable, and the Kinect software is capable of automatically calibrating the sensor based on gameplay and the player’s physical environment, accommodating for the presence of furniture or other obstacles.

Peter Cook, president and owner of Automation Design + Entertainment in Portage, MI, said the Kinect and other advanced gaming systems with remote sensors have special power needs for their USB connections. Because the Kinect sensor’s motorized tilt mechanism requires more power than the Xbox 360’s USB ports can supply, the device makes use of a proprietary connector combining USB communication with additional power. Redesigned models include a special AUX port for accommodating the connector, while older models use a special power supply cable (included with the sensor) that splits the connection into separate USB and power connections; power is supplied from the mains by way of an AC adapter.

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Most of the time, the home theater is called upon to share space with video games. As a result, Christian said, “The biggest challenge has been how best to integrate video games with home theaters but without compromising the performance of either one.”

“USB has only about a 15-foot range, so we need to use USB extenders when putting gaming systems into home theaters where the systems are rackmounted in the rear of the theater,” Cook explained.

With game players located in front of the theater’s main screen in front-projection environments, it can be difficult for them to have sufficient perspective to see each other projected on it, and there are shadow issues created by front projection. Christian says one solution is to employ LCD displays mounted on the sidewalls toward the front of the theater, allowing gamers to see each other over their opponent’s shoulders. This won’t be an issue for theaters that use LCDs or plasma displays as the main screen, or for rear-projection theaters.

Rear projection is also the solution that Blair Robin, partner in Radiant Audio Design in the Toronto area, prefers when he can ascertain that gaming will be a major use for a home theater he’s designing. The key requirement for being able to do that, he says, is space. “You need a good six feet behind the screen in order to do rear projection properly,” he estimated. “The alternative is using mirrors, but that can as much as double or triple your costs.”

Alternatives that Robin has tried include the use of short-throw lenses on projectors positioned closer to the screen, to avoid shadows. Another solution is the use of a horizontal lens shift, a function found on the Epson, SIM2, and Digital Projection projectors he often uses, allowing the projector to be positioned up to 50 percent off axis and thus, eliminating the potential for shadows that way.

Audio Challenges

Home theater multichannel audio is a good fit for contemporary video games, which increasingly come equipped with 5.1 sound encoded for Dolby ProLogic II decoding, meaning it is compatible with fold-down to stereo, and the game consoles are connectable via standard HDMI cables However, there is the perspective issue between theater users that are sitting for movies but standing for gaming to contend with. Cook suggested that the center channel’s height may want to be made adjustable to accommodate standing gamers in front of the screen. “I’ve also found that gamers like to have the low frequencies amped up for game play, more so than for movies,” he said. “That’s especially so for games like Dance Revolution. When used for gaming, the theater can be made to act more like a club environment, especially for younger users.”

Other Spaces

Not every home gaming environment needs to be shared with the home theater. Just as so-called second and third theaters are cropping up to address more informal needs for viewing, such as for kids, game room spaces can be cobbled together as part of larger residential AV projects for fun (the client’s) and profit (yours).

David Jasak, owner of audio-video systems installation company AV Design Associates in Austin, TX, recommends placing the stereo and center-channel speakers at ear level and mounting the surround speakers behind the field of play 24 inches higher than the front array. “Home-theater-in-a-box systems are fine for most game rooms,” he said, “but place the subwoofer in a corner to maximize the bass response.”

Radiant Audio Design’s Blair Robin says 5.1 works well in dedicated gaming spaces for applications like flight simulators, for which he’ll specify three 50-inch LED displays to create an immersive environment. However, when those types of games are played in an online configuration and when using a microphone to communicate with other players online, he recommends provisions for a multichannel headset system for the player, for noise cancellation of ambient game sound.

Cartier said his company always takes special care to provide comfortable seating, proper floor space for action games, ease of operation, and lighting control in the typically smaller spaces set aside for game playing. In one recent project, the integrator completed a triple-screen viewing space for a client, used primarily for gaming and football game watching, that features a 63- inch Runco flat-panel paired with two Samsung 32-inch panels. Custom-built Leon profile speakers provide the audio, and a Just Add Power HDMI video matrix, RTI control, Lutron black-out shades and lighting control complete the experience in the cozy 13x12-foot room.

With the six-zone Graphic Eye lighting control module from Lutron, there is an individually controlled recessed pot light above each of the four Front Row powered theater seats, allowing full direct control of a light source for each player, or viewer.

Despite news reports that game sales are down in recent years, gaming remains a huge pastime and has become integral to the home entertainment matrix. In 2010 game companies sold 257.2 million units. Of the $25.1 billion in revenue they brought in, nearly $10 billion was in hardware such as game consoles, so gaming shouldn’t be an afterthought for home theater or overall residential entertainment system design.

Dan Daley is a freelance writer in Nashville, TN.

Game Player Demographics

Data from the Entertainment Software Association suggests why residential AV integrators will want to keep video games in the mix of systems they offer clients:

• Seventy-two percent of American households play computer or video games, and those consumers spent $25.1 billion on video games, hardware, and accessories in 2010.

• The average game player is 37 years old and has been playing games for 12 years, while the average age of the most frequent game purchaser is 41 years old.

• Wife Acceptance Factor is very high: 42 percent of all game players are women. In fact, women over the age of 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the gameplaying population (37 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (13 percent).

• In 2011, 29 percent of Americans over the age of 50 play video games, an increase from nine percent in 1999.

–Dan Daley

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