How Harmonix Created a Videogame That Can Judge Your Dance Skills

The game studio describes how the Xbox Kinect's motion-capture technology powers their hit series Dance Central. 

The game studio describes how the Xbox Kinect's motion-capture technology powers their hit series Dance Central. 

Before Microsoft's Xbox Kinect came out, videogames didn't really involve your whole body. Gamers were still hammering A and B buttons, wiggling joysticks, and brandishing Wii controllers. The game Dance Dance Revolution let you stamp out increasingly intricate patterns on pad on the ground -- a purely feet-focused dance experience. Meanwhile, however, developers at Harmonix (the guys behind the hit music game franchise Rock Band) were already dreaming up a dance game that would involve the full spectrum of human movement. When the Xbox's infrared motion tracking-camera, the Kinect, came along, Harmonix was off to the races -- building hundreds of actual dance movements into a new series of videogames.

The documentary below, a collaboration between the magazine Kill Screen and the Creators Project, goes behind the scenes at the game studio to learn how the Dance Central works. "The game's pretty straightforward -- you stand in front of a television, dance to top 40 hits -- but behind this seemingly simple game lies a very complex approach to human-computer interaction," Jamin Warren, the founder of Kill Screen, says (and demonstrates). The Kinect tracks your whole body in space, and the game compares your moves with those performed by choreographers in motion-capture suits (awesome looking black spandex dotted with red lights). 

"We want to have great, reliable systems, we want to utilize the architectures that we're building as best we possibly can," Matt Boch, the lead designer, says, "but ultimately the judgment call we make is 'do we make this person feel like an awesome dancer?'" 

This is the second in a multi-part series about the creative frontiers of videogame design from Kill Screen and the Creators Project. Check out the previous episode, about the game studio Crytek and their quest to make games as cinematic as Hollywood blockbusters, here

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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