Push To Play: USC Duo Bridge Generations Through Abstract, Beautiful AR Game

JD LeRoy and Ethan Bresnick have distinct focuses at USC. One is a designer and maker at the Iovine and Young Academy, while the other is an interactive storyteller and filmmaker at the School of Cinematic Arts. When the pair came together in Tangible and Spatial Computing, a course in Media Arts + Practice, they identified a consumer need they could meet: connecting long-distance family members through play.

The result of their collaboration is called AR Playdates, a gaming platform that enables two people to engage in interactive, open-ended simulations from afar. The product resembles a coffee table whose surface shimmers to life and generates a tactile wave of particles that react to touch and real life objects. As elders and youth are increasingly distanced, the system offers a novel way for families to connect remotely. It’s an idea Bresnick, a junior at the School of Cinematic Arts, feels strongly about.

“As a kid, my grandparents shared their imagination with me and I was fortunate that they lived close by,” says Bresnick. “I recognize that many families today are geographically dispersed and it was my goal to utilize technologies such as augmented reality to connect them.”

Bresnick approached LeRoy during class with an early proposal for an interactive media project that envisioned a long-distance, unstructured interactive environment. With Bresnick’s talent for storytelling and LeRoy’s knack for intuitive design, the pair quickly began to ideate.

“Designing for children is not child’s play,” says LeRoy, a sophomore at the Iovine and Young Academy, who focused his efforts on making the product’s design as durable as it is engaging. “The Playtable needs to support multiple activities such as playing with legos and stuffed animals.” LeRoy is no stranger to the challenge of building things from scratch. In the past year he has designed shoes for adidas and spent finals week at Iovine and Young Hall’s Creator Studio sanding down a prototype for a mechanized stand-up desk.

“I’ve long been bothered by the lack of human touch in software and product development,” he says. “So I chose to design AR Playdates body in plywood and acrylic to allow the child’s creativity to shine while remaining sturdy — a device that can handle anything.”

LeRoy’s passion for designing products with a personal touch is central to the design of the game’s wooden chassis. That same feeling is something Bresnick honed in on as he developed the story behind AR Playdates. Capturing the magic of child and grandparent at play, Bresnick filmed and directed a polished and endearing launch video that has already caught the attention of VR Scout, which says the product could “revolutionize how families connect over long-distances.”

“It was amazing to watch Ethan direct a product video with real-life actors,” says LeRoy. He sees Bresnick’s unique skills as harmonizing with his own. “Together, Ethan and I merged our divergent skill sets to reimagine the traditional concept of a product to encompass not just physical objects but also virtual, multi-dimensional and cross-platform devices."

In addition to the valuable moments it offers families, Bresnick believes the product has the potential to change how companies think about designing toys. "This research project could be a valuable resource for the tech and toy industries,” says Bresnick. “AR Playdates is an open play experience, designed with beautiful, abstract software; rather than pre-set, guided play. It's a new direction for technology and toy designers."

Bresnick and LeRoy plan to continue working together and promoting AR Playdates in the months to come. Stay up to date with AR Playdates’ future updates via Bresnick’s Twitter.

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