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Peering into the future of augmented reality games

Peering into the future of augmented reality games Exclusive

November 1, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

Wearable tech is in its infancy, but for those living on the cutting edge of mobile technology, it's absolutely irresistible. Some believe it will be integral to the future of how we play games -- and as part of our virtual reality and advanced I/O week, Gamasutra spoke to several of those behind the first wave of wearable tech and augmented reality games.

"It's the future of games," says Google's John Hanke, head of Niantic Labs, an internal startup the company has launched. It's the studio responsible for Google's location-aware mobile game Ingress. His team is already experimenting with Google Glass.

"Take the shift in browsing from desktop to mobile. There won't be such a thing as a desktop computer in a few years. Now it's 'obvious' that consumer tech is all about phones and tablets. In some number of years it will be equally 'obvious' that games are about wearables. How can pushing buttons and pixels around on a screen compare to moving in the real world with games that involve real people?"

Matt Kitchales, product manager for Meta -- augmented reality glasses that allow the user to see virtual objects clearly in the real world thanks to see-through screens on both lenses -- makes this point rather concretely. Meta is developed out of a house in Silicon Valley by a staff of about 30. "I like to occasionally just pull out my lightsaber and fight against another member of the house," Kitchales says.

Meta (developer hardware)

Point made. But while tech is nice, what matters is software. What kinds of new play experiences can wearable tech bring to games?

What Can Wearable Tech Do for Games?

Unni Narayanan, founder and VP, game production and operations for Mind Pirate -- a developer of games and middleware for wearable tech -- offers an interesting insight about player behavior:

"Wearable tech supports a new class of game play around the idea of 'micro-engagements.' The idea behind 'micro-engagements' is that wearable devices are 'worn' and 'always on.' This implies that a game can also be 'always on,' but the game is not always played."

He expects players to drop in and out of games as they receive notifications throughout their day -- an extension of mobile play patterns, but with an added layer of persistence or immersion.

Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson, the former Valve employees currently funding their CastAR glasses via Kickstarter, see the potential to bring remote players closer together in a shared, augmented world: "People who are in different locations playing a game can both use the physical world, and be represented in the virtual world to the other player."

CastAR (prototype)

Meanwhile, Google's Hanke sees the integration and enhancement of real-life play by a video game layer. "Think about all of the kinds of play that happens on playgrounds, hiking trails, campuses, sports fields, and sidewalks. And think about all of the play that could happen in corporate break rooms, corporate campuses, downtown city streets, public parks, etc. Games that involve movement in the real world, objects in the real world, and interactions with other people all come to mind."

Meta's Kitchales sees a chance to bring new life to a different kind of collaborative real-world play. "Growing up as a kid, I used to do a lot of Dungeons & Dragons," he says. "The opportunity today is to let kids experience the whole game, but completely different. There will be dragons coming out of the table; emotionally, things will be completely different."

"The opportunity for two people to interact with the same hologram just wearing the glasses is a much more advanced technology than people think exists," he says. "We can expect great things."

Wearables and Tech: Expanding Horizons

Wearable tech will interface both with other devices and services (PCs, smartphones, tablets) and with traditional video game tech and designs, as well as the cloud. What effect will these have on the direction developers take?

Narayanan sees three basic ways in which wearable tech will interface with other technologies: "First, the interfaces between wearable devices themselves. Second, interfaces between wearables and the tethered smartphone, and lastly, a shared game space in the cloud where games as complex as MMOs could be realized with players using different devices to play in the same virtual world."

"It makes sense for wearable devices to work together to share data, gamestate, and network connections and for play experience to incorporate many different types of interactions that may take places on different devices at different times," says Hanke. "In the end we'll see smart, small, stylish devices, a super-reliable personal cloud, maybe a single device providing and sharing high-speed network connectivity, something for voice input and some kind of high-fidelity but discreet audio output, and maybe video."

Ellsworth and Johnson, meanwhile, suggest some practical software-based considerations, anticipating how the devices will interface with game development tech: "Physics plays an important new role in this space. Having the user interact in 3D into the virtual world with physics makes the player feel much more connected to the environment. Audio becomes more alive as it is now based upon your position in the physical world: Move your head closer to a virtual music box to hear it. Finally, projected AR allows multiplayer games which utilize fog of war or other hidden data mechanisms to retain those concepts even when players are sitting right next to each other."

The Long Game: The Ultimate Potential of Wearables

Already, Meta has built a Minecraft mod called Metacraft that allows you to "build with boxes in your room, really neat stuff," says Kitchales. The Niantic team is clearly experimenting with Ingress-like shared experiences, even if they're under wraps for now. But what's the long-term potential for games that use this kind of technology?

Johnson and Ellsworth offer a subtle but important insight: "We see AR bringing the social back into social gaming. People can now sit across from each other rather than side by side, watching their opponents react to the gameplay."

But they have other ideas, too: "We’ve demonstrated that you can use your head as an input device as control for a flight simulator, so exploring more ways your physical presence will have on gameplay will be interesting."

"If you move [an existing] game to Google Glass, there’s a different control scheme," says Narayanan. "Perhaps one’s head might be used to navigate the object on the screen, or hand gestures might be the inputs to the controller. In either case, we certainly believe there will be compelling new experiences by re-imagining them on wearable computing devices."

Google Glass

"Bridging the gap between the physical world and the virtual world, by using miniatures, cards, board game pieces, etc. will continue to enhance the experience," Ellsworth and Johnson note.

Hanke, meanwhile, actually dismisses the idea of extending current video games into the AR space. "In terms of taking an existing game mechanic and extending it with some wearable tech, perhaps but that's not so interesting to me," he says.

What does he want to see? "I'm thinking about a range of tech enhancement ranging from small pulses on your wrist letting you know that something just happened all the way to full-blown augmented reality that transforms your world into the one you've always wanted to live in."

These devices will be expected to perform very capably by players used to rich game experiences, Narayanan says. "Consumer expectations around mobile games are rising. For example, consumers now are used to enjoying rich 60 FPS 3D game experiences on the smartphone."

"In a similar fashion we anticipate that more and more apps will take advantage of the increasingly sophisticated sensor capabilities on these devices to meet emerging customer expectations about richer experiences."

He also sees it as essential to use the data that devices can know about players and the world to create the next generation of wearable game experiences:

"The real insight here is that these new wearable games will be micro-transactional in nature. Gamification of all this data that is unique to wearable technology is essential. It’s horizontal, not vertical. We can see this already with health applications. People don’t want to see a chart or graph of their heart rate. They’d rather play a game, test their stamina, clock their mile run. Not only is this beneficial to the consumer but for companies as well, as this type of interaction helps build more meaningful costumer relationships."

If that doesn't interest you, you can think about it this way: "You can walk around the house and start a game, and you'll see zombies coming out of the walls," says Kitchales. "The ideas are limitless -- and there are so many cool ideas and so many ways to use this new technology. It just depends which kind of person you are."

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