Italian hi-tech software teaches perfect pasta skills

6/24/2011 1:37:07 AM

Italian scientists say they have invented a way to teach people highly dextrous tasks using computer software and a basic webcam. Dany Mitzman watched Italians use it to try to make the fiendishly difficult tortellini.

The scientists from the University of Bologna are so passionate about their hometown's world famous pasta, it has become the inspiration for their latest software.

Celebrated for its rich food, the north Italian city known as Bologna la grassa - Bologna the fat - can now boast a computer game based on one of its most traditional dishes, tortellini.

Tortellini are tiny meat-stuffed pasta shapes, said to have been inspired by the navel of the goddess Venus.

Rolling the dough paper-thin, then twisting it into perfect identical packages, is a tricky art which takes years of practice. Tortellino X-perience offers players a taste of what that entails.

'Kneading and twisting'

"We chose tortellini for two reasons," explained professor of computer science, Marco Roccetti, who invented the software together with his undergraduate students.

"The first reason was that we wanted to find a new way of preserving the culinary, cultural heritage of our home town, and the second was that making tortellini is a hard task.

"So designing and architecting a game based on that was a hard task from a technical viewpoint too."

Tortellino X-perience is a multimedia teaching game combining a traditional video with a 3D representation of the player's hands.

Players watch a real pasta maker demonstrate each step of the complicated tortellini-making process in the video.

Then they have to simulate her actions; from making, kneading and rolling out the dough to cutting, stuffing, sealing and twisting it into tortellini.

Their movements are tracked by gesture recognition software using a webcam, so they can see them shown in real time on the screen through stop-motion video.

Each step has to be imitated correctly before players can move up a level.

"I was inspired by a training game I saw for monks on a research trip to the Sony lab in Japan," said Prof Roccetti.

"There was a wall on which the correct actions, duration of movements and duration of silences was projected. Tracked by sensors, the monks had to copy every step perfectly to learn to perform their traditional tea ceremony."

Tortellino X-perience is not on sale. It is designed as a demo to showcase its most important innovation: that it is console-free.

Unlike Nintendo's Wii, you do not need a remote control to play it and, unlike Microsoft's Kinect, you do not need a sophisticated and expensive 3D camera.

'Other applications'

Putting the emphasis on software, the low-cost game uses no hardware other than an ordinary 10-euro (£9) webcam and a PC, making it ideal for interactive, public gaming.

Although the university team do not plan to market the game, Prof Roccetti says their gesture recognition software could be useful in other sectors.

"There are other applications of these technologies which can span from remote medicine to assistance in repairing very complex pieces of cars, aeroplanes or other systems."

"The software could easily be used in museums, schools or exhibitions, allowing people to play games - hands-free and moving their entire bodies - without having to sit in front of their computer screens, " he says, adding that the game received glowing reviews at the Shanghai Expo.

"A journalist from the New Scientist put us in his top ten of the Expo's most interesting innovations".

And what better location to present Tortellino X-perience to the public back home than a traditional Bolognese restaurant?

Diners at the Cantina Bentivoglio were given the chance to try their hand at making virtual tortellini before sitting down to a steaming dish of the real thing.

Raffaella, who has never made pasta before, was enthusiastic: "It was fun and very interesting, and actually making tortellini is a lot easier than I thought it might be."

Meanwhile, Alessandro, who regularly makes his own pasta, found the simulation quite realistic - but much easier than the non-virtual kind.

"If only the stuffing and twisting bit were this simple!" he commented.

Whereas Giacomo was philosophical, saying: "Maybe eating tortellini is easier than making tortellini."

Ironically, the person who found the game hardest was the restaurant's resident pasta maker, Luisa, who had been quietly making hundreds of real tortellini in front of curious onlookers all evening.

"She's been making pasta for 50 years and she's useless at the game!" her boss joked.

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