[While many are familiar with SCEA's head of R&D, Dr. Richard Marks, it's through product-focused interviews or his presence on stage at Sony's E3 events -- this long-form interview gives more insight into the man behind Move and EyeToy.]
For someone who's a manager at Sony Computer Entertainment America's R&D department, Dr. Richard Marks sure has an old phone -- a beat up clamshell flip phone that one can only guess was preloaded with Snake.
"Everyone makes fun of me about it all the time," he told Gamasutra prior to a recent interview at the Las Vegas DICE Summit in February. "I can't get rid of it now. I push the button, it goes 'swoosh.' There are not many phones like that."
But Marks' old pocket technology is deceiving: as SCEA's R&D manager of special projects, he's in charge of keeping up to date on the most cutting-edge trends in science and technology, and prototyping various ways in which tech can be applied to new video gaming experiences for consumers.
Marks typically makes his public appearances on stage with Sony when the company is introducing products conceived in the R&D department, such as the EyeToy and PlayStation Eye cameras, and most recently, the motion-sensing PlayStation Move wand controller.
The R&D manager tells Gamasutra how he got from underwater robotics to the gaming industry, why he thinks the traditional gamepad will remain relevant despite motion controllers and where he thinks the competing Kinect for Xbox 360 succeeds, and where it fails.
I know a little bit about you. Sony usually carts you out when they have products to announce like the PlayStation Eye or the Move. But can you offer a little bit more of your educational and work background?
Dr. Richard Marks: Sure. Actually, the relevant background starts in high school. My parents were both teachers, and my father decided he wanted to own a business. So, he opened up a video game retail store. I would go there after school and work in the retail store. We sold Atari 2600, ColecoVision, Vectrex, Intellivision and all those things. I already played games, like most kids. But then I got exposure to a lot of games.
Was that out in California?
RM: It was in Indiana, actually.
Oh, I'm from Indiana. Fort Wayne.
RM: This was in South Bend, Mishawaka. I played games like Zork. I thought I wanted to work at a game company. Then I went to college. I thought I wanted to be a computer science major, but I got a job in computer science in the summer. It was really kind of boring, so I switched to aeronautics and astronautics engineering.
So it still had programming involved, but it's more applied programming instead of tools, maybe. And databases are not my thing, so that wasn't what I wanted to do. I switched majors to aeronautics and astronautics, and for grad school I went and did robotics. Robotics and video games are really, really overlapped.
RM: Robotics is a lot like character animation, except robotics you have real world constraints, like how much torque the motors can put out, whereas in video games you don't have those limits. Controlling a character in a game is a lot like controlling a robot, and aeronautics and astronautics are all about systems engineering. There's a lot of different systems that have to interact together.
Same with video games -- there's a lot of different things going on in a video game, in the physics system, in the animation system. So, I think a lot of the same skills work out.
Exactly what's your Ph.D. in? You're actually a doctor of what?
RM: It's aeronautics and astronautics, and it's of underwater robotics was what my thesis area was. It is using a camera to control an underwater robot automatically.
So one of the things that we did is this. Underwater cameras can't see very far because the water, you can't see through it. So we made a thing where we would take photos of the ocean floor and stitch them together automatically so you would have this one giant picture. Scientists had never seen it like that because you can't just get further back [to get a wider view].
And then the robot could navigate. You'd just click on that wherever you wanted on that map and you could drive over there using a camera to control it. Then I worked at a startup company that was using that same kind of image processing techniques but for video conferencing and stuff like that. Then we got bought by Autodesk who make AutoCAD and then we got spun out and kind of laid off.
So a lot of the Silicon Valley stuff happened, and I was at the Game Developers Conference just for fun one year, actually, and I saw PlayStation 2 and so that's when I decided to come to Sony.
I heard about that. You thought that it would be good at processing video?
RM: Yeah. I just thought there were a lot of things it could do probably that it wasn't necessarily intended to do. But the hardware was good for that, video processing in particular. Also physical simulation is another area I wanted it to work on.
So in the R&D department, it's kind of hard to understand exactly what you do. I mean, what do you do on a daily basis, sit around and think and tinker with hardware?
RM: It's not a, like there is not a real good schedule for R&D. Sometimes you have to self-impose schedules a lot. And I usually do it by attending talks or conferences or reading papers, so that I force myself to have some deadline, because usually there's not one. Sometimes there will be a deadline when you get more involved in a project.
So once we started working on Move, for example, then the deadlines are real because it's part of a real product. But before that, it's prototypes and it's trying things out. A lot of times we come in and we just try to make new game experiences, new things. Sometimes we try to make new hardware. We don't really make final hardware. We make prototype hardware out of clay or Styrofoam or something, just to feel how that would feel.
Sometimes we do support work where we're supporting the game teams, where we answer very mundane things, like why does this function do this, you know. But it's a pretty wide variety and I actually like that. That's one of the best things for me, is that you don't do the same thing every day.