When it comes to the idea of a landscape dominated by information, people usually think of Virtual Reality (VR). VR was popularised by films such as The Lawnmower Man, Hackers, Johnny Mnemonic, and The Matrix. Beyond scientific and military applications, VR is just too expensive for the average consumer. A term that people are less familiar with is Augmented Reality (AR). In many ways, AR and VR are very similar, they both involve some sort of headset and they both involve a user navigating information visually. The difference is that while VR requires a virtual environment to be generated, AR simply overlays information onto the existing environment, think the Terminator’s POV.
Now that Smartphones and cameras are smaller, lighter and utilising more sophisticated software, it is not surprising that we are seeing the emergence of AR as commercially viable, consumer-friendly technology. The BBC had a report on the emerging use of AR on their website last week, I have posted the video below:
Thankyou LadyGeekTV for the YouTube vid.
The BBC focuses on the commercial application of augmented reality which is an obvious start for this technology, especially with the large number of consumers who own Smartphones and tablet PCs. Since this is a gametech blog, let’s look at AR’s gaming potential. Sony recently debuted SmartAR, their take on AR software, but before I look at this, I want to show you the current developments and failures in AR gaming.
This project introduced me to the concept of AR as a gaming tool. A few years ago The National University of Singapore’s Mixed Reality lab built ‘Human Pac-Man’. The project is an AR take on a classic game. In its crudest sense, the game works by projecting a computer display on something as small as a pair of glasses, and combining it with a beefy computer and GPS. Each player (Pacman, Ghost 1, Ghost 2, Ghost 3) straps on what looks like a Proton pack and goes out into the real world. The computers map out a game space and place virtual pills around the environment. The player simply has to play Pac-Man.
The technology looks crude and the graphics are extraordinarily simple but it is quite cool. As with a lot of University tech projects, this appears to have disappeared into the black hole of academia, but it proved that at least the concept is do-able.
It is not just compu-geeks who have investigated the possibility of combining gaming and AR. More recently a game was developed for the Nintendo DSi called Ghostwire which used the DSi’s camera. In the game you used your own environment and the game’s “ghost tuner” to spot and capture ghosts. Unfortunately the game lost its funding and has become as ethereal as the sprites that feature in its story.
There is hope for Nintendo though; the 3DS has a series of AR games that uses a card as a marker upon which to project a virtual object into your space. The use of a marker seems to be required because of the level of sophistication in current AR software. If you remember, the AR in the BBC story used the same mechanism.
The void between traditional video games and mobile games is becoming smaller. Successful examples of cross platform events include Angry Birds and the new Sony Ericsson Experia Play – the first smartphone with a built in joypad. If you also consider the 3DS’s AR series and Sony’s forthcoming handheld console, the NGP (Next Generation Portable) which will feature front and rear facing cameras and control surfaces, the potential for AR games is here. The hardware exists. So what about the software? Well, Sony recently debuted ‘SmartAR’.
SmartAR’s advantage is that it is markerless which means AR games are not limited by the size or position of the marker and, in theory, could be played anywhere. You could take a game like Street Fighter and play against your opponent in the local park, while actually facing your opponent. SmartAR can detect and interpret real world objects. In theory this means that you could take a game like MicroMachines and use your living room as a unique, customisable race track.
Sony used a SonyErricson Smartphone for their demonstration so the nuts and bolts of this form of AR already exist. SmartAR’s video is below:
I feel we are on the cusp of something great but the technology will probably be heavily used by promoters and advertisers before it becomes a staple in the gaming world. As Belinda Palmer of ‘Ladygeek.com’ said in the BBC report, this is currently a technology for people with time to kill. She has a point; walking around with your phone or ipad in front of you does make you look pretty silly. The solution probably lies in wearable computers, of the kind envisioned by writer Charles Stross in Halting State, but they are a long way off.