CES has not been a major event for gaming platform announcements for quite some time, but Philips Electronics is announcing their Entertaible platform this year. The Entertaible is a 30" touch-sensitive LCD (flat panel) display mounted in a wooden table. Philips' idea is that you load up games in the table and use a set of specialized pawns and dice to play a whole new kind of board game and videogame hybrid. The idea is to invigorate the board game market and to bridge the gap between the myriad play possibilities the digital medium offers and the tactile, social qualities of playing with real people and real things.
Initially conceived as a commercial game attraction and targeted towards restaurants, bars, and casinos, Philips has decided that there is a potential for the Entertaible to be adopted by home users looking to revive family game night. The table requires no specialized setting or lighting conditions and is completely operated by touch. It can detect the positions of pieces on the glass, and dozens of objects or fingers simultaneously in contact with the table.
Current experiments seem to focus on traditional board game applications revamped for digital display. There is a practical component to the Entertaible: Game boards can be downloaded to the console, making it easy to find games after they've been purchased and eliminating the need to store your games and keep them all together. The Entertaible games can also assist with rules keeping and helping people learn games. As pieces are placed on a board in a touch-sensitive version of Scrabble, the scores are tallied on the fly. It would even be possible to include a dictionary to help settle debates that might arise, and alternative rules could easily be incorporated as options.
Revamping existing board games is only a part of why Entertaible could lead to interesting gameplay techniques. As the Nintendo DS has made clear, touch-oriented gameplay can be compelling and unique. A variety of interesting group play and creative activities could be implemented, as well as whole new types of games that we've never played together. The DS is mainly a solitary experience, but the potential for many people to play a touch-sensitive game at the same time is huge.
As Gerard Hollemans of Philips Research in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, puts it, "In the longer term, Entertaible could be used to invent brand new games offering unprecedented levels of user interaction – games that would never become predictable or ever quite 'feel' the same twice, however often you played them."
If it comes with the right connections and if Philips plays their cards right, the Entertaible could become a fascinating area of application development. Philips has already identified business and educational applications of interactive desktops. Artistic uses could be significant as well; Wacom has had great luck attracting artists to its Cintiq line of touch-sensitive monitors. Touch sensitivity is also generally considered a helpful aspect of designing quality user interfaces, opening up another realm of possibility for different groups to access digital technology.
From a gaming standpoint, the Entertaible has a high bar to even fill its niche. Board gaming is not dead. Recent board game hits like Cranium are testament to that. And classic board games, like Scrabble, are not likely to satisfy longtime players with so much of the tactile qualities of the game removed. What is Scrabble without real tiles? What is Monopoly without the cute little playing pieces?
To a certain extent, many of these issues can be compensated for by issuing custom sets of pieces for certain games or game editions. A special edition Entertaible Scrabble could ship with intelligent tiles that the Entertaible would be able to interpret to fulfill its scorekeeping duties. A Monopoly game could ship with specialty pawns.
But therein lies the appeal of the Entertaible. The most entertaining games will likely come from blending real-world and digital aspects. Just as so many folks have taken to the DVD/board game hybrid Scene It! (in which players answer questions about films and TV in order to proceed around a board), hybrids of digital gaming and real game objects could create very interesting group play dynamics.
At the least, I'll go to a bar I wouldn't normally go to in order to try out an Entertaible, but whether or not it will find a home in my house remains to be seen. This is a developing product that is worth keeping an eye on: It could be the next ubiquitous family gaming experience.
A video of the Entertaible in action can be viewed here