Power-Ups, Virtual Balls, And Quantum Engines: Watch The Future Of Sports

Check out the first iteration of this new virtual reality version of sports, where the ball is generated by a computer and you can earn special powers, just like a video game.

Basketball, soccer, baseball–these are all fine sports. But wouldn’t they be even more fun if they could be released from the boring, been-there-done-that laws of physics?


This is what human-computer interaction researchers in Germany were wondering when they created the idea of the “imaginary reality game”–a concept for a hybrid analog-digital game that allows people to play sports as usual, but with an invisible ball and the addition of “power-ups,” low-gravity scenarios, and other crazy schemes dreamed up by developers.

“Unfortunately, physical games are limited by the constraints of the real world, restricting their game mechanics to what is physically possible,” the researchers state, matter-of-factly, in a paper that will be presented at a major conference on human-computer interfaces in the U.K. on Friday.

Their prototype version of a new reality, which they show-off in the simulation above, is called “Quantum Basketball.” Real players face off against each other, wearing accelerometer sensors on their hands, belts, and markers on their heads so they can be tracked by a camera. A “quantum engine” that the team developed probabilistically computes all possible trajectories for the imaginary ball the players are passing and shooting, and a game engine decides the outcome according to a set of given rules along with randomness (i.e. whether a ball goes out of bounds or is caught). Finally, the player–who can’t see the ball–hears occasional sound feedback, such as the sound of a swoosh, a catch, an interception, and an announcer’s voice, so they can figure out where the ball is and how to respond. There is an element of uncertainty compared to regular basketball, but that’s part of the fun.

Patrick Baudisch, the lead author on the paper who is with the Hasso Plattner Institute in Germany (and formerly of Microsoft Research and Xerox PARC), thinks devices people already have in their living room could make such games possible, such as the new generation Microsoft Kinect camera, which is being released with the Xbox One in a few weeks. The camera will be equipped to track multiple people.

“We think of imaginary reality gaming as the next thing for the living room (the large living room…maybe 2 on 2 on basket :)),” he wrote in an email from the conference at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

There is a history of trying to merge the physical and virtual through augmented reality games (see Human Pacman, AR Quake, and even an augmented reality Bitcoin world). But in the past, these ideas have required some sort of screen to overlay the virtual world on top of the physical. The social and physical movement experience of interacting face-to-face with other players can be lost in translation. Baudisch is excited because “imaginary reality” games create a new kind of game dynamic that merges the benefits of physical sports with the creative, imaginary elements of video games.


“We are fixing something that I always felt was broken about video games: when you and I play video games together, we are not really placing together but we are both facing and playing with the screen. With imaginary reality games, we bring immediate social interaction between co-players back into video games,” he says.

Already, the researchers, who come from the Hasso Plattner Institute and the University of Hanover, have created versions for other sports, such as soccer, and hope to make a full sports suite. It’s still a mostly a literal interpretation of the respective sports, but soon they hope to start having some “real fun.”

More generally, Baudisch thinks the imaginary game work could have broader applications in developing software developers’ understanding of what can be done in a future computing environment in which people mostly interact with realistic gestures and movements, rather than touch screens and keyboards. (His team has also developed a “imaginary phone” that allows people to control a device in their pocket by drawing on their palm.) Welcome to the future, folks.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.