The next guy you see walking down the sidewalk paying more attention to his PDA than where he’s going, he might not be checking stock prices. And if you see somebody dressed as Pacman, sprinting from intersection to intersection to avoid costumed ghosts, don’t worry that you’ve walked into some weird alternate reality (though I guess anything’s possible). There are some rather interesting games trying to bring the game world and reality much closer. They are taking video games to the streets, and giving players a pretty good workout at the same time.
We don’t hear too much about Virtual Reality anymore. Although the buzz seems to have fizzled out, the idea certainly hasn’t. Instead of simulating the entire environment and making it all “virtual,” some game designers over the past couple years have been trying to use what people see around them and add virtual elements to it. The player wanders through the real world, and using a wearable monitor or a PDA or other devices, is aware of game elements or enemies that surround them.
This rather vague idea is called Augmented Reality (AR). So far, the technology has a several forms. Some games require strapping a computer and a monitor-headset to the player, which allows the person to see everything around him or her with the addition of virtual elements added by the computer; motion sensors and tracking equipment help to make this possible. Alternatively, some games (perhaps classifiable as “urban gaming” but still within the scope of AR) remain unseen, but players carry a PDA or WiFi mobile computer to see where the virtual elements are around them.
Like a far more grandiose and immersive version of laser tag, people can transplant a first person shooter like Quake into their surroundings. ARQuake (official website) was one of the earlier implementations of this technology and was designed by students at the University of South Australia. A player is equipped with a backpack-computer (that looks like it could have been used by one of the Ghostbusters) and a headset with semi-transparent goggles. The goggles allow the player to see everything that is around them, and game characters and objects are superimposed via the screens inside the goggles. To move around in the game, players actually walk and turn their entire bodies.
The stylish computer suit
Since the game monsters and guns need to be placed correctly and not visible when they are behind a wall, the computer equipped on the players back must know where important real objects are. To keep the computer aware of this, the game runs a map that is structured the same as the gaming area but is invisible to the player. The player sees real objects while the game sees grids where important structures are. Getting these two worlds to match up is the tricky part.
Shooting some creeps in front of a building
To figure out where players are, the computer tracks them using GPS. These aren’t standard GPS devices that have an accuracy within 5 meters; that’s not good enough for real-time gaming. ARQuake uses Trimble Ag132 GPS, a $4,000 system, to track players with an accuracy of centimeters, and it updates GPS locations 10 times per second (instead of once a second as standard equipment does).
The researchers are designing this as proof of concept, not a marketable game system. The hardware they are using is out of most people’s budget, $10,000 plus all the work of designing the system and altering the code of Quake. But given technology advances and prices reductions, this could be extraordinarily marketable. It would be incredibly fun to hunt shamblers and other monsters in the streets (though you’d look like a nutcase). Or you could play multiplayer. ARQuake allows two people to face off in AR suits, or an AR player can compete with somebody playing on a computer. Take a minute to look at the project’s webpage; they have some cool videos of what it looks like to fight monsters behind the AR goggles. The videos of giant doors and gun battles on top of cars in a parking lot are especially interesting.
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