EyePet Impressions: There Is No Pet Actually On The Table, Folks

Earlier this week we showed you Sony's PlayStation 3 EyePet in augmented-reality action. Today, I'll struggle to write words that are as impressive as that video.

Sony's EyePet is the latest gee-whiz software product that uses a Sony console and a camera. On the PlayStation 2, Sony used the EyeToy to offer players mini-game compilations that had players waving their arms in front of their TV in order to virtually wash windows or chop vegetables. The PS2-EyeToy combo also produced a fitness game, called EyeToy Kinetic. These games preceded Wii games such as Wii Play and Wii Fit by several years, but they failed to catch on, be it because of their design, their technology, their marketing, or whatever.

With the launch of the PlayStation 3, Sony introduced an improved camera, the PlayStation Eye. Within a year, the company launched Eye of Judgment, a simple strategy game that had players placing cards on a mat beneath a downward-facing camera. On a connected TV, virtual monsters appeared to stand on those cards.

EyePet is the successor to all this. It works as shown in the videos and described in our E3 EyePet report. Players get the game and the camera, a TV and a PS3. The camera is pointed at a flat surface. At the event in New York this week where our EyePet videos were filmed, Sony had a massive coffee table set up upon which the Eyepet would roam. A Sony rep said that any flat surface would do, as long as it allowed color-contrast with the card that is used to manipulate the pet as well as with the players' hands. I was told that lighting wouldn't be an issue, but that's something better tested in our own homes. At the Sony event, at least, there didn't seem to be any fancy lights set up to make the game work. We were in a decently-lit top-floor loft and the game was running from the sunny afternoon to the darker early evening. (Watch Kotaku's EyePet videos.)

EyePet Impressions: There Is No Pet Actually On The Table, Folks

The EyePet pet is rendered to appear to scamper across the table. You can wave your hand at the pet to make it jump or tap on the table to draw its attention and make it come running. But a card that will come with the game is your main tool for activating various parts of the software. Laying it on the table causes a virtual menu to sprout, from which various activities can be selected. From there the card could become a trampoline for the pet. We turned it into a bubble blower, tapping the head of the virtually-rendered bubble-blower to blow bubbles. The pet jumped in the biggest bubble. He began to float away. Game choices included bowling, tennis, and others, many of which, I was told, include goals that unlock some 250-plus options for customizing the pet.

There was a grooming section I didn't check out. It looked like it would involve combing and showering the pet who was getting dirty and attracting virtual flies as we played.

Captured in one of our videos published earlier this week is the drawing system for the game. This involves drawing basic sketches of cars and planes and other objects comprised of basic shapes. You hold your sketch to the camera, and the pet then grabs a crayon and re-draws your sketch virtually. As you can see in the video, a drawing with the proper constituent parts will transform into 3D objects that combine into pet toys. So the pet winds up flying on the plane or driving the car. The Sony rep showing me the game said he used to do the car wrong, drawing a side-view of an automobile that would turn into a blob of an object that the pet would zoom around on. Doing it right means drawing the side view of a car frame and then two wheels. Players can pick the textures for any of the objects. So imagine making the car from wood or stone, for example.

One of the other things we showed in the video was the ability to give your pet a check-up. You hold the card up to the pet as if it's an X-ray scanner and wand over where the pet is virtually standing. This provides clues to its mood and its needs. Maybe it's sad or hungry.

I only messed around with the Eyepet for about 15 minutes, but every time I saw the game being played during my several-hour tour of Sony's line-up, I saw a crowd watching the thing. The pet was captivating, and it seemed like it could do a lot. While it seems more of a thing you tend to than a thing you play, the impression I got was that interacting with Eyepet could be a goals-based experience. If so, it may well have appeal not just for the virtual pet, Nintendogs crowd, but for challenge-loving gamers as well.

The game is set for holiday release and will be offered both as a standalone disc or with a bundled PlayStation Eye.

And for everyone making comparisons to the Xbox 360's Milo, they don't appear to be that similar. Milo, which I've also used, involves head-tracking and a virtual boy's reading of face and voice cues. I'm told that EyePet will support some use of the PlayStation Eye's microphone, but it doesn't sound like it will be a central feature.