Many an hour has been whiled away in arcades by friends playing a game of air hockey. Just because this game is a classic does not mean that there is no room for improvement, however. Those that frequently faceoff at the air hockey table may have even noticed the occasional use of special lighting and sound effects to increase engagement in the game. But due to the high-speed nature of the game, enhancements do not normally go much further than that.
A trio of researchers at Tohoku University in Japan have brought air hockey into the twenty-first century with the use of some high-speed components that allow for a virtualized version of the game.
The team replaced the typical, porous table with a rear-projection screen built into a table. Both the puck and the paddles have been replaced by virtual representations projected onto the table with a high-speed, 420 FPS projector. To control the paddles, players hold a stylus-like pointing device that emits infrared light. A high-speed FLIR camera senses these paddle movements. A laptop with an Intel Core i7-10710U CPU processes paddle input, and acts upon the puck accordingly.
The high speeds of this system are critical for a convincing gameplay experience. Because the position of the hand clearly indicates where the paddle should be, any delay in movement is highly apparent to the user. Previous studies have shown that, in similar scenarios, users can detect latencies of as small as a few milliseconds. Even given the high frame rate, the developers still found that some latency was perceivable when moving the paddle very rapidly. They found that a simple prediction algorithm that assumed a constant velocity model was sufficient to eliminate any noticeable lag.
The researchers see their technology as being able to transform the game of air hockey beyond what is possible with a traditional table. They experimented with changing the shape and size of the paddles, for example, to control the difficulty of the game, and also to change the dynamics. In another demonstration, they created a paddle with a net that allows the player to both trap the puck, as well as hit it. Opinions will most definitely vary on whether or not air hockey needs an upgrade, but there is no denying that this new technique presents many new possibilities for the game.