As part of the PSP (PlayStation Portable) launch in the UK, students of London’s Royal College of Art were briefed by Sony to discover and respond to the ultimate gaming experience.

Key criteria in the brief Sony provided were beauty, freedom and iconic design.

Given a deadline of eight weeks to have all research, concepts and development stages completed, the team of six first year students were under pressure to produce an exhibition that directly communicated the multi-player capabilities and amplified the social interactivity offered through the new gaming technology.

The resulting landscape of concept furniture interpreted further into the brief, provoked questions as to the wider implications of the use of products such as the PSP within current and future lifestyle environments.

For those of you that are not familiar with the PSP and the available technology it offers users, it is a hand held gaming device, each with it’s own LCD screen and directional keypad.

Users can not only play against the computer, but also interact with other networked ‘local’ gamers by way of PSP’s wi-fi capabilities, opening the possibility to spontaneous new relationship building via competitive gaming connection.

The students conducted initial research while hosting a house party where multiple PSPs were available for guests.

Common positions of the involved gamers began to emerge – leaning against walls, huddled over their PSPs on benches, cross legged on the floor, generally oblivious to the rest of their (non-gaming) surroundings – but what was really understood from this and other research activities was the level of interaction between players, while they simultaneously searched for isolation in order to focus wholly on their personal gaming experience.

This was demonstrated by gamers involved in an early evening multiplayer session draping their jumpers over their heads in order to see their screens more clearly and to limit distractions from surrounding party goers, however, from within these jumper enclosures came the “gaming banter” that proved interaction within the group was still a required stimulant and very much part of the full experience.

These observations quickly set the foundations of the students final design concept. 

Alan Otten, an Interaction Design student explained, “Once the conceptual idea had been generated it was a question of looking at the different options of form and materials.” Life sized cardboard mock-ups of the structures were built by the six students as they perfected the design and began to look into manufacturing possibilities and restrictions.

“The process was quite complex” explained Manolis Kelaidsis, an industrial design engineering member of the team. “All the panels (about 800) were different, so the whole fabrication resembled building a three-dimensional puzzle. Each piece had to be cut and then joined with its neighbors at the right angles.”

Originally, the structures were to be upholstered with a thick felt onto a fibreglass base, in order to focus on the necessity of creating an insular environment that delivered a cocoon like enclosure around the player and blocked out exterior distraction.

“Eventually we went for perforated steel as a compromise between cost, structural properties and weight,” said Kelaidsis.

“When manufacturing started we realised that the perforated steel’s opacity served our objective best – to encourage a shared experience while at the same time providing a degree of isolation and immersion. We decided then to upholster only a few panels in the interior to provide more comfortable use.”

When you view the finished exhibition, it is hard to imagine the concept being as successful should they have not made this realisation.

The perforated steel offers exactly the right level of isolation and inclusion within an environment. Looked at from certain angles, (when looking past the slightly rough finish applied to a number of the joint welds) the structures seem solid, yet from other angles you are tantalised by the possibility that ‘perhaps’ these massively imposing enclosures actually house ‘something’.

From the interior of the semi-enclosed space you seem to take on the power and size of your shell structure, you feel transported into another world.

A more futuristic world, a world where you become immersed in your personal gaming reality almost immediately, yet remain subconsciously aware of your exterior surroundings and hence share spatial and intellectual dialogue with gamers that are equally immersed in the exact same gaming reality.

The RCA students interpreted the rather abstract brief from Sony with a certain amount of youthful wit, and in doing so, managed to bring the PSP ultimate experience a little closer to being understood and possibly experienced even by those who would have previously seen little reason to pick one up!

With their interpretation of the brief being sound in itself, and their design, one that certainly begs for a level of interactivity from its audience, it seems the design grew organically rather than through a linear design process, resulting in the products’ slightly unrefined finish due to time and budgetary restrictions.

However, perhaps really the only thing missing is a way for users to be successfully drip-fed an alcoholic beverage whilst keeping two hands on the PSP controls!  

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