Surfball: the Millennium game that's (virtually) real

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The Independent Online
Can this be the vision of the future? The key to the 21st-century sport that everyone who visits the Millennium Dome will want to play? Pictured right, a surfball - as patented in March in the United States and Europe by Kentaro Toyama, a research student at Yale University.

And wasn't it only Monday that "Dome Secretary" Peter Mandelson told the Commons that his pet project would "attract people of all ages, although I suspect that playing surfball, the 21st-century sport, will have an especial appeal to young people".

It looks ideal. The surfball (as patented) would be an ideal joystick for playing three-dimensional virtual reality games. Surely this is what Mr Mandelson was alluding to so coyly in his answers to the House and to the Select Committee on Culture.

Except that yesterday Mr Mandelson's troops at the New Millennium Company, which has been set up to create the experiences for the Dome, were in full retreat over use of the word. "Surfball", as used by Mr Mandelson, is apparently a codeword for an "all-British" project which is "still on the drawing board". Mr Toyama's device is not involved, the spokesman insisted. But couldn't this open Mr Mandelson to allegations of trademark infringement or "passing off", if people thought the Dome was going to have terrific virtual reality games based on this innovative technology? Mr Mandelson was last night not able to shed any light on the mystery, but Mr Toyama, at least, could. He now works for Microsoft's research division in Seattle, and has not heard of Peter Mandelson or the Millennium Dome.

Pity. Mr Toyama's invention uses a camera linked to a computer. The camera is trained on a squash ball, with two dots painted on it, held in place by four rubber bands. Move the ball and and the camera can deduce how it has changed position. Connect it to a virtual reality headset, and you would have the perfect joystick for navigating through space. But it seems that instead we'll have to be content with an all-British codenamed project.

"We are of course grateful to The Independent for bringing this to our attention" said the New Millennium Company's spokesman, sounding anything but.

So what should we now call Mr Mandelson's grand design? The Game Formerly Known as Surfball, perhaps?