Computer scientists from the U of A are working with Japanese researchers on a virtual reality game to tear people out of their seats

If there’s a uniquely satisfying sound a flying watermelon makes when struck by a lightsaber, staff at a virtual reality practice game called Slice Saber will find it.

The game’s creators, from the University of Alberta, and their colleagues in Japan hope the sound – along with a host of other enjoyable sounds and visual and sensory effects – will encourage otherwise sedentary people to move and have fun.

Slice Saber is one of half a dozen games available on Virtual Gym, an exercise platform where health practitioners offer game-like physical activities for older adults, with configurations to suit each user’s ability. Virtual Gym is being created by a U of A informatics research team led by Eleni Stroulia and Victor Fernandez in partnership with the AGE-WELL network.

To play, contestants enter one of six different virtual worlds where they perform a series of stretches and moves to do everything from popping balloons, climbing mountains, shooting an archery, or even slicing up a steady stream of flying fruit. The platform relies on the virtual reality headset to collect game data that evaluates the player’s performance and helps to adapt the game to each user’s ability in real time.

“In our case, we work with seniors who may not be able to exercise to give them the opportunity to maintain the flexibility, balance and activity level that is good for avoiding frailty,” says Stroulia. “And even though Japan has a much older population than Canada, they’re hoping to use it with younger adults, not just seniors.”

Stroulia shared the platform, which is still under development, with colleagues at Ritsumeikan University in Japan who have taken an interest in “exergames” during the pandemic that has continued to challenge the island nation and lead to increasing isolation from citizens of all ages .

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“Our Japanese colleagues suggested making the virtual gym more enjoyable and motivating for younger adults, which is especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic when people can be stuck at home.”

The group is experimenting with sonic, visual, and haptic (touch) effects across the platform, including enhancing the sound made when slicing watermelons and the physics of how they break when sliced ​​by the user’s lightsaber.

The researchers want to answer a series of questions, says Stroulia. “Will these changes make the game more enjoyable? Are people playing longer? Does it make playing easier?”

The genesis of this collaboration can be traced back over a decade. The relationship began in 2011 when Geoffrey Rockwell, a professor of digital humanities at U of A, received a Japan Foundation scholarship to study Japanese video game culture at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. “While we were there, we got talking about the need to develop a dialogue about Japanese video games, since the fields of game studies in the West and Japan didn’t speak to each other,” says Rockwell.

The outcome of his visit, with the help of the U of A’s Prince Takamado Japan Center for Teaching and Research, was a 2012 symposium in Edmonton. The successful symposium grew into an annual conference that would later become known as Replaying Japan: International Conference on Japanese Gaming Culture. Originally designed to switch between Japan and the West, it now includes explorers and destinations around the world.

“Two of the three game console manufacturers are in Japan,” says Rockwell, but researchers of gaming culture there have been isolated from their global peers. “If you want to fully understand a major entertainment industry, you can’t do it without studying Japan.”

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He adds that the strategic importance of this relationship has never been more evident. Canada is among the countries with the most video game design companies – thanks to gaming design studios in Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton – behind only the USA, Japan and Great Britain

In an effort to further strengthen this partnership, Rockwell, Stroulia and Fernandez recently visited Japan with University of Alberta President Bill Flanagan. On March 1, Flanagan visited Ritsumeikan University to sign a memorandum of understanding between U of A’s Kule Institute for Advanced Study and the Ritsumeikan Center for Game Studies — Japan’s only academic center focused on game studies.

“We hope that we can expand the ties between Japan and the University of Alberta so we can work together to find solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges,” Flanagan told attendees.

The U of A’s partnership with Ritsumeikan University dates back even earlier than Rockwell’s journey with the Japan Foundation. In 2010, the two universities signed the Visiting Student Certificate Program Agreement. Since then, 103 students from Ritsumeikan University have studied at U of A. The institutions have collaborated in several research areas, with 16 co-authored publications to date, and have a history of collaboration as members of the Japan-Canada Academic Consortium. The U of A houses the Prince Takamado Japan Center for Teaching and Research, which serves as the Canadian secretariat for the consortium.