Stories on Creativity: Perttu Hämäläinen
Synthesizer, climbing wall, and a yellow unicycle. The office of professor of computer games Perttu Hämäläinen is full of things that show where his interests lie. Hämäläinen, whose hobbies include acrobatics, is especially keen to develop motion games that stir a sense of achievement and empowerment.
“I’M PART OF THE COMMODORE and MSX generation. I had an MSX at home, which taught me to code. Growing up in my small hometown of Valkeala, there was nothing much to do if you weren’t into ice hockey or soccer. A class trip to the library in Tampere was a huge thing for me, as they stocked books on fractals and computer graphics.
I created my first games in the Basic programing language at the age of nine or ten. A demoscene guy in charge of the computer club at school asked me whether I’d ever tried programing before. That’s how it all began. Once I was off, at worst I’d be coding for 12 hours a day.
In upper secondary school, I left coding aside for a time to hang out with people who made short films. Blowing things up was more fun than coding.”
"It’s so cool to be the first to invent something."
Wall climbing and bouncing on a trampoline are part of a regular working day for Perttu Hämäläinen – to research and develop motion games of course.
“I’M STRONGLY AGAINST THE THOUGHT that students shouldn’t change their field of study. It’s impossible for a young person to know what the right career will be. I know this from experience.
In 1995, I began my studies in Signal Processing at the University of Technology, as I wanted to learn to make synthesizers. Four years later, I took part in an M.A. program at Media Lab, which is part of the School of Arts, Design and Architecture. I got in because of my involvement in the Otaniemi Underground Broadcasting System cable television and Teekkarispeksi amateur theatre. I handed in my doctoral dissertation at the University of Technology in 2007.
In spring 2012, I became a computer game professor. I teach at the Department of Media of the School of Arts, Design and Architecture, and engage in research at the School of Science. I feel that my work is useful, as we research and develop motion games that are linked to physical education. Aesthetically speaking, motion is extremely fascinating and algorithmically challenging. How to make a simulated character dance or do parkour sharply and smoothly in a game – this is something our team has been developing further.
For an adult, it’s not easy to find experiences that are completely gripping. My children are like an N=2 test, two-person data I observe closely and use to test things to do with motivation and gaming. When children learn to stand or walk, you can see that rush of joy and empowerment.
These are the types of experiences I want to share with adults, and they can be found in gaming. You see yourself moving at an exaggerated speed on the screen. The brain integrates what is seen, exaggeration becoming the overall observation. This creates an incredible sense of achievement.
The best parts of my work – inventing and creating – are really addictive. It’s so cool to be the first to invent something! This could be in the form of a scientific publication or game. I’m not competitive by nature at all except in this, which is somewhat conflicting.
I understand the gaming world also from an industrial viewpoint. I was chief technology officer at a game company for six years. Virtual Air Guitar Company was founded by my research colleague Teemu Mäki-Patola. We had no previous track record in games, just a strong belief in ourselves. Music games were popular at the time, and we managed to get over one million in funding from Warner Bros. Records. In the end, the game was crushed by the financial crisis in 2009. I’m still proud of our work, and to this day, our awarded Kung-Fu High Impact game continues to be the most responsive Kinect game available.
At the time, I also learned that you shouldn’t have a startup and a child at the same time. You just end up neglecting both and feel inadequate all the time. I always tell my students to choose one or the other.
Unfortunately, running a company doesn’t look good in academic evaluations, as it means time away from publications. I can’t afford to take a sabbatical in the gaming industry, as it would have a negative effect on getting research grants.
I play far too little these days, and hardly ever for my own pleasure. I just quickly go through what’s new. Many games require hundreds of hours – how can anyone with two kids and in the throws of today’s global competition have time for games like that? Fortunately there are also many games around today that last for the duration of a movie.”
"My children are like an N=2 test, two-person data I observe closely and use to test motivation and gaming."
“NEW TECHNOLOGIES BRING new ways of gameplaying, genres, and players. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning are the next major technological breakthrough in the game industry. Technology feeds game design and opens new doors. The same can be seen in the field of research. This year, we are developing the first proof-of-concept games based on our research in motion AI.
My aim is to combine AI research and motion game research. With the help of AI, you can for instance create a virtual sports coach, who will guide players to find the climbing route that matches their body type. It also allows to control a simulated climber in the virtual world, providing cognitive physical exercise also when the body needs to rest. As a climber myself, that’s exactly the type of game I’m after, as my body can’t handle climbing more than twice a week. In practice, the results could be used in sports coaching, to boost the motivation to exercise, and to create new experiences of achievement.
I constantly think about my work, and my own research always means overtime. As a professor, I can’t take a sabbatical in the corporate world, but I wouldn’t mind spending a month or two delving into AI research, say as a pro bono consultant coding some new game. This way I’d also get a feel for working in a game company.”•
1 “Otaniemi Underground Broadcasting System cable television. It was a community of its own.”
2 “Getting into the School of Arts, Design and Architecture. It changed my direction. Otherwise I would have probably ended up
coding at Nokia.”
3 “My diploma work Kukakumma Muumaassa, which reaped awards and made me confident that the merge of physical exercise
and new technology was a big thing.”
4 “Animation machine and Kick Ass Kung-Fu installations with Ari Nykänen and Mikko Lindholm.”
5 “Backward flip on the trampoline. Despite doing acrobatics, I just couldn’t do it. Then I got a trampoline at work for research
purposes, which meant I could jump so much that I finally nailed it.”
Profile photos by Maija Astikainen