Google Headed South

Teaching a pioneering gesture-based technology through play

The Problem

Soli is a new sensing technology that uses miniature radar to detect touchless interactions developed by Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP). For the first time, consumers will be able to play with this new method of control via the Pixel 4 smartphone, pioneering an entirely new way to interact with devices.

With every new technology, you have to find a way to show people how to use it in order to speed up learning and adoption. Inspired by the way games have been used in the past to help people master a new technology, ustwo and Google ATAP created a gaming experience to help players learn to control their device using gestures in the air.

Our aim was to create a game experience which was not just useful but enjoyable to use. The end result is a way to delight people as they learn something new in a very natural and fun way.

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What we did

This was not only a very interesting problem to solve, it was tapping into the very passion of how we like to explore and create beautiful new experiences connected to emerging technology.

We were working with a pioneering technology, so exploration by doing and playing was essential.

Our designers and developers worked quickly, developing concepts and prototyping to determine what sort of game experience we should make. Overall we designed and built 27 proofs and three prototypes, the game Headed South was born out of this effort.

Headed South takes you on a journey through a fantasy landscape, from the lush forests of the North to the warm secluded shores of the South. You play as Soli, a unique bird on a mission to rescue unsuspecting wild birds from an approaching storm. Each bird is unique and requires special gestures to catch up to them in flight. Master the gestures and flight controls in order to save the birds and escape the storm!

The art style is inclusive and playful in order to appeal to as many people as possible. The player navigates a world defined by sweeping air currents and flowing graphics over a terrain sculpted by rivers and populated with lush foliage beneath a sky of swept clouds. Enhancing a gliding sense of movement, even the creatures in this world are sleek and dynamic.

Screenshot of the game

What we learned

Continuous agile experimentation was key to the development of this experience. We were working with a pioneering technology, so exploration by doing and playing was essential. We had to ask ourselves some fundamental questions: What type of experience should we create?How should we use this technology in a game? What type of game mechanic would feel fun and magical?

Working with a new format means there is a lot to discover. It sounds obvious but gesturing above your phone is a ‘bigger’ interaction than tapping with one finger on a screen. To make that interaction feel right, we used a combination of visual, audio and haptic feedback to help the player feel a better sense of control.

During the creation of Headed South, through prototyping and playtesting, we realized what most resonated with players, was the direct connection between gestures being used and how natural it feels when playing the game. With this in mind we created a prototype of a kite, and explored controlling the wind to fly the kite. This experiment evolved into Soli, our bird in Headed South.

Screenshot of the game

Meaningful Impact

With Headed South we initiated a new approach to experience design and development, one that unifies the best of product and game design principles to create an experience that fascinates while helping people learn.

We are firm believers that play can be a powerful tool to teach new behaviours for a new technology. It brings joy to the unfamiliar and helps people master new skills, grow, and have fun. This project is a great example of the power of play to reinforce those behaviours.

Ultimately the process of creating Headed South became an exploration between game design and creation for emerging technology. It plays the role of teaching and gracefully introducing people to a new way of interacting with a smartphone while not focusing on the technology itself. A balance between learning to fly and doing so in a beautiful space.

Our Interaction designer Anders talks more about the process of creating and refining Headed South in his blog post: Navigating a frontier of gesture-based experiences.