In 1901, Wonderful Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum published a short story called “The Master Key” in which the protagonist Rob has invented the “Character Marker,” electrical spectacles that overlay a letter on the foreheads of people to give a sense of their personality. At the end of the story, Rob reflects on his inventions and says that “It’s no fun being a century ahead of the times!” History is catching up with Rob. Cyberspace is no longer a virtual world we visit through a laptop or desktop display. The proliferation of wireless networks combined with the ubiquity of smart phones is pushing toward a blended reality where digital media is an overlay on top of our existing reality. And as for the fun that Rob was missing out on, the first compelling augmented reality experiments are taking place in the realm of mobile games. Most of them use the device’s camera as a “viewfinder” and overlay the game on top of the world in front of you. The “wow” factor of most AR games wear off after 2 minutes. But we’re in the early days, and right now the fun is mostly in the demos.
* PlayStation AR Play is the free augmented reality gaming suite for the PlayStation Vita. You lay down a special card and the device reads the image to trigger the digital overlay. For example, you can have a desktop tank battle, play coffee table soccer, design a fireworks show, or, um, beat up your friends in a fighting game.
* Nintendo 3DS AR Cards, released last year, also give the illusion of games projected onto real surfaces. The 3DS has several titles built into the device, including remagined classics like fishing and archery.
* Droid Shooting for the Android platform is like a first-person Space Invaders where the targets are flying around your room.
* Parallel Kingdom for iPhone and Android is a popular multiplayer adventure game that doesn’t use your device’s camera but rather leverages GPS data and Google Maps to overlay an alternate universe of castles, dungeons, and dragons on top of your real neighborhood.
* AR.Drone brings augmented reality into the realm of personal robotics. You control a small quadrocopter via Wi-Fi using an Android or iOS flight control app. An HD camera mounted on the quadrocopter delivers a birds-eye view. Once you master controlling the drone, you can play games like AR.Rescue2, in which you help aliens fly their rocket home, or racing game where you must fly the robot through an obstacle course.
Top graphic credit: Shutterstock and SolidAlexei
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