Wired magazine is the most popular technology magazine in the U.S. circulating almost one million hard-copy issues every month and read by millions more online. In 2004 the magazine ventured into uncharted territory by convening its first ever NextFest festival in San Francisco. The objective was to mimic the old-fashioned World Fairs where innovators exhibited and traded some of the ideas that would shape the future and the way people live their lives.

The first Nextfest was a roaring success, visited by 25,000 people over the course of a single weekend and the 2005 event was planned as an even more ambitious occasion. The venue changed to the massive Navy Pier centre in Chicago and more exhibitors in a greater number of categories were invited. This time, over thirty thousand people visited over the weekend to experience future technologies from industries as diverse as health, exploration and, of course, entertainment.

The “Playground”, or entertainment pavillion accomodated nearly 20 different exhibits from the digital entertainment sector. Everything from humanoid robots to human pacman were included but the dominant theme seemed to be the search for new ways to interact with games and the digital world in general. Of course, new interfaces can be taken to impractical extremes, but that’s exactly what NextFest is about; pushing the envelope of new technologies. Here are some of the gaming highlights from the festival.

One way to change the way we interact with the games we play is to simply develop a new controller. Gamerunner takes first person shooters and gives them a whole new level of immersion.

Basically, it’s a treadmill with handlebars. The deck of the treadmill is sloped to provide resistance and the handlebars, which turn just like a bike, have triggers attached to which the player can assign actions.

Load up your favourite FPS and you simply walk or run on the treadmill to propel yourself along in the game. The handlebars do the turning. Suddenly hours of playing Half-Life 2 becomes as demanding on the body as on the nerves, but one thing’s for sure, it’ll keep gamers fit. This author felt he’d gone a few rounds in the ring after ten minutes of Quake on the Gamerunner.

It’s the stuff of schoolyard conversations, in fact, most of us probably thought of this exact device when we were about ten. But hats off to the developers because it works like a dream.

Virsual: The Digital Rocking Horse
To develop a game controller for an existing game is one thing, but to take an existing toy, turn it into a controller, and develop an entirely original game for your new platform is another thing entirely.

Virsual is a thing of great beauty. A small, clean, cute looking rocking horse, like a futuristic toy from a Spielberg movie. And alone, it is just that, a beautiful toy. But connected via RF to the Virsual game, it becomes a game controller and a means to explore a virtual world. The faster the player rocks on the horse the faster they move through the game, as the head turns – so does the in game action.

The beauty of the Virsual’s design is undisputable and attracted many to the exhibit at NextFest. But the fun didn’t stop there as the visual style, graphical quality and playability of the Virsual game were captivating. All credit to the Australian design team who in conversation admitted to achieving all this with only two full time staff!

Blowaway: The Winds of Therslow
In among the interface innovators was Irish contribution “Blowaway: The Winds of Therslow”. Some gd.ie readers may remember this project from the birthday party last April. Blowaway is aimed at the younger audiences, and topples the myth that games discourage teamwork.

The objective of the game is to steer a hot air balloon across the four islands of Therslow while collecting lost Sunbeams. The players must work as a team using only their breath to carry the ballon along the correct course. Each player blows into a custom built sensor in order to play.

This author is loathe to exaggerate the projects success due to his own involvement but this was the first time the game has really been exposed to lots (and I mean lots!) of children and reaction was really positive with some kids taking up residence at the exhibit for more than a couple of hours.

Kick Ass Kung Fu
There were many projects on display that utilized Eye-Toy style image tracking to allow players immerse themselves in a game environment using a webcam. But none surpassed the scale and quality of Kick Ass Kung Fu, developed by Finnish outfit Animaatiokone Industries.

The player takes weapon of choice and stands on a playing mat positioned between two large screens. The game detects the players presence and starts up. Realtime image tracking and video keying puts the player into a kung-fu beat-‘em up game. The two screens allow the player to work through 360 degrees and exagerrated physics put Crouching Tiger style moves within the reach of most of us.

This game really has to be seen to be believed. It is an incredible amount of fun, a real physical challenge, and technologically, is on the cutting edge of image tracking which is an area being explored by most of the major software and hardware developers in gaming today.

Among the best of the rest was Brainball, the now famous game where you have to “Relax to Win” using a measurement of your brain activity pitched against that of your opponent.

I haven’t touched on most of the Playground exhibits and have completely ignored the assortment of flying cars, petrol-powered dolphins, 360 degree cinema screens and unmanned military aircraft that were on display. Links are provided below for further information.

NextFest will get bigger again next year and will move to the East coast and New York City. Anyone in the area is strongly advised to grab a ticket for a whole lot of fun with the technologies of the future.

Featured Links:
Wired NextFest – http://www.nextfest.net/
Gamerunner – http://www.gamerunner.com/
Virsual – http://www.virsual.com/
Kick Ass Kung Fu – http://www.kickasskungfu.net/
Blowaway – http://www.blowaway.org/

Other great exhibits:
Skycar – http://www.moller.com/skycar/
Brainball – http://smart.tii.se/smart/projects/brainball/index_en.html
Playmotion – http://www.playmotion.com/
Innespace Dolphin Vehicle – http://www.innespace.com/

Author Bio:
John Lynch teaches on the games course in Ballyfermot Senior College in Dublin and was one of the team behind the design and development of ‘Blowaway’ (despite his modesty above!). John was also one of the initial designers behind gd.ie. Contact him via the forums where his nickname is Johnnyslim.