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Monday, November 24, 2008

Gaming Grows up, Moves Out: Augmenting Reality with Android

Reto Meier is a software engineer in London. He blogs about technology, programming & Google, and is author of the book Professional Android Application Development.

The next generation of games promises to take gaming out of the lounge room and back into the open. Consoles and gaming devices won’t just be a combination of key strokes and button presses, they’ll be tool used in the real-world as part of the game.

It’s the difference between playing baseball on the PSP or with a bat and ball. The difference between Counter Strike and Laser Tag. While the iPhone looks like a solid portable gaming console, technologies like Android and the Nintendo Wii and DS could become the bat and ball of the future.

We can define augmented reality as technology that let’s you either:

  1. Turn physical behaviour into virtual actions (for instance, see this video of a 3D character which is added after the program processes the webcam input of you moving around a marked paper) or
  2. Add virtual information to physical perception (like the head-up-displays in fighter jets)

Google-led Android is an open mobile development environment with the potential to drive developers to build advanced mobile applications including a generation of reality augmenting games.

To some the sound of unloading shotguns is more sinister than kids running around shouting “pew-pew”

Growing up, I played a lot of tag / chasey and “cops and robbers”, role-playing was always a big part of these playground games. Conceptually simple, they became increasingly complex, with a variety of very specific rules (Ba-lees, home, electricity, tag-backs, “injections”, ...). The ethereal nature of the weapons employed inevitably led to arguments over whether a shot missed, hit, or merely grazed an opponent.

Laser Tag games (like Zone 3 or Qasar) and desktop role playing games (like AD&D or CCGs) had the spirit of playground games, with the benefit of a more rigid rules system and the semblance of impartial arbitration.

Over the years these childhood pursuits morphed into yet more complex variations of themselves. What is a first person shooter if not a deadly, electronic version of tag? What’s Mirror’s Edge if not “race you to my house!” on methamphetamines.

Games that you play with your gaming device rather than just on it

“augĀ·ment -\og-’ment\ - v. to make greater, more numerous, larger, or more intense”

The incredible accuracy and detail of in-game graphics and physics engines only services to emphasize user input as the sad, weak runt of the gaming litter. No matter how you cut it, tapping keys and moving joysticks does not provide the same immersion and adrenalin of running around a playground, diving for cover, or even strumming an air guitar.

Some game makers have recognized the opportunity. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are the canonical examples. Wii fit comes in close behind. These games have proven moderately successful.

Led by Nintendo, this new regime features games that you play with your gaming device rather than just on it – where rather than pressing buttons that update a visual simulation, you the game is merely a way of objectively measuring what you’re physically doing.

Platforms like the Wii are the first step, but Android provides a generic platform that can bring the advantages of computer gaming into your real world experience – with the potential to change the way we play games.

The US military is building systems like this to manage actual battles

How cool would it be to play Counter Strike in real-life, using your phone as the game link rather than just another small screen games platform.

Imagine, if you will, a deadly game of cat and mouse – played out in real life with the in-game features you’ve come to expect from a modern FPS. Maps featuring annotated HUDs that show your location and that of friendlies and enemies. Real-time comms between team mates and special functions like calling in airstrikes or character abilities like healing and spying.

Maybe real-time strategy is more your thing – a game with a dozen friends where two generals plot, plan, and direct a game of territorial domination across the neighborhood.

Take free-running to the next level by shamelessly stealing some of the incredible gameplay available in Mirrors Edge Time Trials – overlaying paths over a live camera feed and timing and comparing your runs – to augment the physical experience

Create puzzle games like Mercury Meltdown that can be played the right way, tilting and rotating the screen to solve on screen problems and navigate mazes.

No matter what the game, your device becomes the conduit through which the games’ metadata flows, providing a support network that enables maps, communication, and character actions.

Android is the perfect development kit for writing a new kind of mobile game

Android has everything you need to start writing a new kind of mobile game. While the G1 is probably a little rich for many people’s blood, there’s no reason we shouldn’t start seeing custom gaming hardware that uses the Android platform to provide a more tailored gaming solution.

Future games can use mobile devices to augment reality: providing advanced tactical features to games that play out in the real world. It’s an exciting time to be designing and playing mobile games and Android looks well positioned on the front-lines.

Free Stuff!

To celebrate the release of my book Professional Android Application Development, a new guide to creating applications for the Android mobile application platform, I’m giving away 5 copies.

To scoop one up, leave a comment describing the childhood game you’d like to see adapted into an augmented reality application. The freebie books go to the five most exciting or unusual ideas!

For more Android development resources, check out the Professional Android Application Development resource Portal.

[Update: the winners are announced!]

[Images CC licensed by Rev Dan Catt and Leonard Low. Definition quote by Merriam-Webster.]


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