Business Report

Playing with Augmented Reality

Five games that bridge the divide between the digital and physical worlds.

As graphical user interfaces replaced text-based systems in the 1980s and ’90s, computers often came with one or two games, such as Microsoft’s Solitaire (above right), intended to help people become comfortable with the technology. Today, games are playing a similar role for augmented reality, which overlays digital data on the physical world (as in 2009 TR35 honoree Pranav Mistry’s Sixth Sense system (above left). A number of new games, which take advantage of the dramatic improvements in consumer-grade computing and vision hardware, are demonstrating the potential of the technology to new users and helping create a demand for even better hardware and software, especially for mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets.

Although never released commercially, ARQuake, created in 2000, is widely recognized as the first augmented-reality game. Developed by the Wearable Computer Lab at the University of South Australia, the game was based on a heavily modified version of the best-selling 1996 first-person shooter Quake. Playing ARQuake required wearing a head-mounted display and field-of-vision tracker connected to a backpack containing a laptop and a GPS; a handheld “gun” controller provided input.

In 2009, EyePet was released for the PlayStation 3 game console, building on Sony’s research into augmented reality. A camera attached to the console tracked the movements of a specially marked card target that was held by the player or placed on a surface (in later versions this target was replaced by controllers specially designed to work with Sony’s motion-tracking system). The PlayStation 3 uses the target or controller as a reference point when overlaying the image of a friendly virtual pet onto the camera’s view. While watching the augmented view on screen, a player can interact with the pet by moving the target or placing objects nearby.

In recent years, smart phones have provided a new, lightweight platform for augmented-reality games. Like the original EyePet, ARDefender, developed by the French company Int13 and released in 2010, relies on a target marker. Downloaded from Int13’s website and printed by the player, the target is placed on any flat surface, which then becomes a battleground when viewed through the camera. In the game, the player uses touch-screen controls to defend a tower against attackers.

AR Drone, developed and designed by another French company, Parrot, combines augmented-reality gaming and remote-controlled helicopter technology. The game allows players to control a four-rotor helicopter using a smart-phone app that communicates with the helicopter over a Wi-Fi link. While the helicopter is in flight, the smart phone displays a video stream from a camera mounted in its nose. The app allows the user not only to fly the helicopter but also to play a racing game, a hunting-style shooter game, and others, overlaying targets or enemy aircraft onto the player’s view.

In development by Future Reality Games Company, ShootAR is a first-person shooter game that dispenses with markers of the kind used by EyePet or ARDefender, allowing players to play virtual paintball with their friends in almost any environment. Using a smart phone’s camera to layer game statistics and weapons over the real world, this game is much like the original ARQuake, but without all the extra hardware. In a few short years, requirements for mobile AR gaming have gone from thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment to a phone worth a couple of hundred dollars.

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The Business of Games

Long a multibillion-dollar industry in their own right, video and computer games are now affecting a broad range of businesses. The appetites of game players are driving social and mobile technologies. Games are being used to train and manage employees, as well as to encourage customer loyalty and reduce health-care costs.

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