So you’re flowing with the human herd along a busy urban artery – Figueroa Street, say, in downtown L.A. The walkways outside Staples Center are packed. The Lakers just won a playoff game. Kobe jerseys abound.
But that’s not why you’re here.
A playlist hums in your iPhone’s earbuds as you wade through the purple and gold horde. Suddenly, you hear a warning tone. You slide the phone from your pocket and see a flashing icon. A red directional arrow points upward.
Tap the icon to activate your phone camera’s viewfinder and trigger an incoming transmission. In your earbuds, you hear:
“Agent Five, this is Hotel Quebec. Be advised, we’ve marked rooftop shooters tracking your vector. Immediate countermeasures recommended.”
Raise your iPhone, moving it in the direction indicated by the arrow. The onscreen HUD (heads-up display) auto-brackets a hooded sniper on a nearby roof. He’s drawing a bead on you. Quickly! Tap the screen, and a red targeting reticule appears under your fingertip. Drag it over the shooter and hold for a target lock. When the reticule flashes green, tap it again to fire.
Zap! Onscreen, your iPhone emits a brilliant green photonic burst.
The sniper is silently incinerated.
Seconds later, HQ confirms the sector is clear. Wade through the jubilant crowd past the Lakers’ arena and turn up West 12th. Your HUD reveals a cloaked contact lurking behind a pillar in front of the Los Angeles Convention Center.
The frightened informant emerges. He reveals a shocking secret with global implications.
Well done, Agent Five. Mission complete.
Virtual Fun in the Real World
If that scenario feels like a videogame … well, that’s because it is a videogame, potentially, and not far off. A new breed of game design is almost upon us, one that pulls graphics off your living room screen and superimposes them onto your field of vision in the real world. New games will blur the line between what’s real and what’s virtual by using technology to enhance what you see and hear in real time.
Augmented reality, or AR, is a well-known term to folks familiar with digital imaging. It refers to the overlay of digital content onto real-world environments. A common example of AR tech is the yellow first-down line projected onto the field in TV broadcasts of American football games. Another is the puck-tracking effect you can see when watching televised hockey.
But AR is emerging as the next big thing in videogaming, as well.
The idea is to tap into the new mobile zeitgeist. AR gaming apps aim to motivate smartphone/tablet users to get off the couch, get out the door, and get engaged with the real world using virtual means.
A Real Run from Virtual Zombies
A nice first stab at immersive AR gaming is the audio-only app Zombies, Run! available for both iPhone and Android. Designed to add a shot of adrenaline to your everyday running experience, the game drops joggers into the pumping heart of a zombie apocalypse – not the most original scenario these days, perhaps, but there’s a wicked twist.
Playing as a character named simply “Runner 5” – a newcomer to the survivors’ colony called Abel Township – you complete a series of missions that dare you to dash through zombie-infested territories surrounding the base. That’s right – the gameplay demands that you literally run past virtual zombies.
The story unfolds in a radio-like narrative, with compelling plot points triggered by your actual movement through real space. Using the GPS tracking ability of your mobile device to mark progress, the game knows where you are, how long you’ve been running, and how fast you’re going. It lets you play your favorite running-music playlists but interrupts for updates or warnings from your mission contact back in Abel Township.
And here’s the kicker: at regular intervals, you encounter slavering packs of zombies in hungry pursuit of your supple runner’s flesh and well-oxygenated blood. In your headphones, you hear their snarling approach in the distance behind you. Your contact urges you to run faster. If you don’t speed up, the howling pack gets closer. And closer.
Trust me, it’s terrifying. You will run faster.
Ingress: AR Hits the Big Time
Zombies, Run! was developed by a small indie design studio in the U.K. using a few thousand dollars of crowdfunding startup cash raised via Kickstarter. But AR gaming is also getting big-boy attention. Check out Google’s first foray into the field.
Last November, the company’s mysterious Niantic Labs division launched an ambitious AR experiment entitled Ingress. The massively multiplayer game splits players into two worldwide factions seeking to gain virtual control of actual geographical regions.
The Ingress gameplay focuses on the struggle for control of color-coded “portals” found in real-world locations but seen only via Android mobile devices. These portals are often associated with landmarks such as large public sculptures or notable buildings … although recent portals were added at a number of Zipcar and Jamba Juice locations! To interact with a portal, you must be near the actual location. In other words, you play by hitting the real streets of your real city and seeking out game-critical locations.
Take a peek at the slick trailer that teases the Ingress concept at HYPERLINK “http://www.ingress.com” www.ingress.com. Warning: It may blow your mind. Then surf over to HYPERLINK “http://www.zombiesrungame.com” www.zombiesrungame.com for an overview of the innovative running app.
Afterwards, fire up your smartphone, strap on some jogging boots, and get ready to hit the streets of a brave new world in gaming.
Jon Mardukas has been writing for and about videogames for more than 30 years. He’s authored more than 125 full-length strategy guides for some of the biggest games in industry history, including bestselling titles from powerhouse developers such as Bethesda, Blizzard, Rockstar, and Square Enix.