Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Coming AR Revolution

In this article, alternate reality game designer and writer Andrea Phillips discusses the near-future of augmented reality games.

Here in 2010, the sizzle is all about mobile games, social games, location-based games. I’ll forgive you if you’re a little tired of hearing about them. But you’d better get used to it; these trends are just getting started. Just wait until you see what’s coming down the pike for 2020! I’m talking about the coming revolution in augmented reality games.

These games will allow you to interact with real and virtual environments at the same time, overlaying visual or auditory data on your real-world experiences. If you’ve seen Minority Report or Iron Man, you’ve got the right general idea – gestural interfaces and computer-generated images floating in the air. Sure, there’s some Hollywood magic in there; hologram tech, for example, isn’t quite ready for prime time. But real tech companies are working on building devices that can deliver experiences just as amazing, if not more so.

Surprisingly, these Hollywood portrayals of AR don’t show you the real possibilities that come when you take the tech and make it mobile. Just imagine the games you could make with a system like that! (To get you started, you can take a look at some of the games I’ve predicted already. Or just read Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge.) I don’t know about you, but the game design possibilities make me positively giddy.

So how do we get there?

The biggest hurdle to augmented reality games are the same hurdles that mobile games have only recently overcome. The technology needs to be in the hands of a critical mass of potential players, which means it needs to be cheap, easy to use, and absolutely reliable. And it needs to be powerful enough to deliver a compelling gaming experience, of course.

We’re already on our way. Most smartphones are powerful enough to deliver great games already. The limiting factor in many mobile games is input/output -- screen real estate, not CPU. And these problems are well on their way to being solved.

Companies like Vuzix are already working on transparent AR glasses, so you can interact with the real world and the virtual at the same time. The MIT Media Lab is developing projects like SixthSense, which can turn the whole world – even your body – into input devices.

These may seem clunky and impossible right now, but in ten years’ time, the technology will become lighter, lighter, cheaper, and near-ubiquitous. Our precedent here is Bluetooth. It took about ten years for the now-common headsets to percolate into the mainstream; now, you can’t walk into a supermarket without seeing one.

The first warning shots of the AR gaming revolution have already been fired. Games like The Hidden Park, Kweekies, and Level Head all demonstrate some of the novel possibilities for games yet to come. And companies like Mirascape are building the gaming platforms of the future. As the tech gets better, the games will, too.

We’re not there yet; a lot of the AR work out there currently amounts to cunningly engineered party tricks. But the AR revolution is definitely coming, and I mean to be ready for it. Will you?

Andrea Phillips is a freelance alternate reality game designer and writer, and has worked on projects like the award-winning Perplex City, True Blood’s Blood Copy campaign, and Channel 4’s She writes about games and digital culture at Deus Ex Machinatio.


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