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Augmented Reality for Six-Year-Olds

Toy makers bring augmented reality to the masses.
December 13, 2011

This Christmukkah, kids everywhere are going to get their hands on examples of real-world augmented reality that were the subject of lab experiments and breathless posts on Slashdot only a few years ago. These experiments in fusing the virtual and the real worlds are all the more compelling when you understand the economics of the toy industry, where razor-thin margins are the norm and toys must be produced as cheaply as possible to allow for marketing budgets and usurious licensing fees.

Skylanders figurines solve the sync problem common to all multiplatform interactions by completely recontextualizing it.

In other words, this year’s best examples of consumer augmented reality AR were produced on the cheap, pointing to a near future in which AR makes it into objects with more practical—or at least more adult—uses.

First up, there’s Disney Appmates, in which real toy cars are used to navigate a virtual environment realized on the iPad. Like all augmented reality, it’s better expressed in video than in words.

Appmates uses the same clever hack that all the aftermarket styluses and physical interface add-ons for the iPad use: anything that can transmit the conductivity of your fingers to the iPad’s screen looks like a finger from the point of view of iOS. The fact that an iPad can use multi-touch inputs is the reason that it can discern, for example, the orientation of the car. Simple, elegant, cheap: it’s mainstream AR at its most accessible.

Next, there’s Skylanders, a classic console and PC role playing game that happens to store all of its player data on plastic figurines that appear in the game when they’re placed on a USB-connected platform. What’s special about Skylanders is that the player data really is stored on the physical figurine, so that kids can take their characters to their friends’ houses and drop them into a game with all the same levels and equipment they’d have at home.

It’s an interesting bit of physicality that runs counter to our tendency to move everything into the cloud. It also solves the vexing problem of sync that we all experience—in the old days, we didn’t have to worry about what “machine” we were on as long as we had the relevant physical media (paper, etc.) in front of us.

Skylanders points to one way to completely recontextualize the problem of sync in the physical world, by tying our online identities to a physical key we carry with us. Sure, it would be a pain to lose that key—unless of course it was easy to generate another. In any event, the use of a physical “container” for our online identity would force programmers to respect the metaphor and assure that everything we are and create in the online world can travel to whatever platform we want to use it on, whether it’s a PC, tablet, or phone.

That this level of sync is something most online services are only beginning to master, and that Skylanders manages to accomplish it across platforms as disparate as the Playstation 3, Nintendo DS and the PC, is a testament to the usability and programming chops of video game makers.

Augmented reality (AR) is one of those technologies that feels like it’s forever teetering on the edge of a breakthrough—some killer app or slick combination of existing hardware that will make it as indispensable as the text message. It’s been a while since games were pushing the envelope of what’s possible with hardware, and some would say that’s to the detriment of technological progress. Where would todays GPU-based supercomputers be, after all, without decades of PC game enthusiasts to prop up the market for GPUs until they became sophisticated enough to challenge regular CPUs for certain computing tasks?

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