Thursday, August 27, 2009

Augmented Reality Gaming

Augmented reality (AR) is a term for a live direct or indirect view of a real-world environment whose elements are supplemented with-, or augmented by computer-generated imagery. The augmentation is conventionally in real-time and in meaningful context with environmental elements.

Wikipedia: Augmented reality

I've been fascinated with the concept of Augmented Reality games (which for the sake of my fingers I will from here on out refer to as AR) for quite some time now. Now, my fascination isn't limited to the Wikipedia definition above, although that's a good start, but rather with games that, in some way, let you interact with the environment of the world around you.

My fascination with the whole concept started with a game called Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. It's a Metal Gear game, which means that it was awesome. You played Snake, complete with awesome battle mullet, and snuck around places you weren't supposed to be to save the world. The new twist they introduced, though, is that you could use an infiltration team of up to four people for each mission, using soldiers that you captured and converted to your side in the course of your missions. You trained the soldiers, gave them upgraded abilities, and armed them to suit their talents and the mission. It was like Pokemon with guns.

The best part of the game had nothing to do with tactical espionage action, however. The best part of the game was recruiting new soldiers via something they called "RF scanning." You put the game into scanning mode, and if there was a wifi signal nearby, a little radar started to ping. You hammered down on circle button, and eventually you pounded it enough to get a bar above a line and were gifted with a soldier. The soldier was unique based off of the individual router, with some routers giving good soldiers and some routers giving unbelievably bad soldiers. I would take my PSP with us when we'd travel pretty much anywhere and scan as we drove down the roads, cackling with glee as I retrieved soldier after soldier. I'd do it walking around in Walmart or the mall. It was fantastic.

Next came a PS3 game called The Eye of Judgement, which was a true AR game. It was, at heart, a money-sucking collectable card game, except it was awesome. You took your deck of cards and played the game like you would any other card game, except you put the cards under the special Sony camera, it read some characters off of it, and it brought the card to life on the screen with awesome computer graphics. You're just playing a card game like any other that wasn't really outstanding in any way in its gameplay, but when you have CG giants slugging it out against CG dragons because you put down a little card, the gameplay doesn't entirely matter.

Even one of my new favorite pastimes, Geocaching, is essentially a form of AR game. It's basically hiking at which you can win. You find a GPS point nearby where someone has hidden a treature and set off on an adventure to it. You use your game device, a hand-held GPS of some variety in this case, to navigate your way to the GPS point and find the hidden treasure. It takes the ordinary and adds a gameplay element to it, which is awesome.

The last few months, video games have largely fallen off of my radar, the sole exception being iPhone games that I can play in five-minute bursts once or twice a day. The concept of AR games still fascinates and intrigues me. I tried a game called Parallel Kingdom for the iPhone that tried to be an MMORPG based on your actual physical location in the world. The idea got me all jazzed up, even if the gameplay seemed a little lacking. There's another offering on my phone called Seek N' Spell, where you find a field and the screen puts a bunch of virtual letters over your GPS location. You then get five minutes to run around to the location of the letters to "pick them up" and then try to build the best words you can in a mashup of Scrabble and, you know, running around. It's fantastic. These are the kinds of games that still manage to fascinate and intrigue me.

Sony has a new game coming out in this genre called Invismals. It's their answer to Pokemon, in that you collect adorable little animals to make them fight against other adorable little animals. The trick, though, is that you find the adorable little animals for your virtual cockfighting exhibitions by slapping a camera on your PSP and running around and exploring the world - apparently, certain color and texture combinations on the camera trigger different Invisimals in the software. That's freaking amazing.

The iPhone has a camera, GPS, and internet access built into every single new unit that's getting sold. It has the simplest, most intuitive interface on the planet, operating almost completely by touch. It's a device that's almost omnipresent with people who own them, because it's their phone. The fact that there aren't more good AR games leveraging the iPhone is almost criminal.

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