Video games that allow players to interact with reality, long a staple of science fiction, are about to become fact.
With the advent of next-generation cell phones and such devices as PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS and Tiger Telematics' just-released Gizmondo, some game developers are looking at this portable space as an opportunity to create gaming experiences not previously possible in any genre.
Gizmondo president Eric Peterson uses the term "augmented reality" to describe his company's first foray in this direction, the December release, "Agaju: The Sacred Path." The game makes use of a GPS chip and digital camera to combine 3-D gaming avatars with real-world locations and objects.
The unit is powered by Microsoft's Windows CE, comes with a built-in GPS chip, digital camera, multimedia messaging capabilities and wide area network gaming through a GPRS network link. It also plays MP3 movies and MPEG-4 movies.
"We live in a world where PCs and new technologies isolate people," says Peterson, who built game developers Digital Anvil and Warthog before joining Tiger Telematics. "E-mails have replaced interacting with people. Online games have replaced sitting on the couch playing against friends. We want to build a community of gamers with Gizmondo that augments rather than isolates."
"Agaju" is like a real-world treasure hunt that blends video game missions and an original story. Gamers create a personal avatar on the 2.8-inch screen and then embark on a series of real journeys, guided by a helpful sprite. If you need to improve your health, for example, you'll have to physically go to a hospital; the GPS will know exactly where you are, and the game will reflect your achievement. If you need more knowledge, a trip to the library is in order. The adventure will take the better part of a year to complete, and gamers will be competing against hundreds of thousands of other players around the world for real prizes.
"The more you play, the better the prizes will become," Gizmondo USA producer Rich Clayton says. "The game has been designed to allow a gamer the opportunity, if played right, to win air miles that will allow him or her to travel to other locations to continue the game. By following the sacred path, it's possible to go on a global treasure hunt without paying for most of the expenses."
Nokia has created its own division, Nokia Enhanced Mobile Gaming, to explore similar ways that the next generation N-Gage Series 60 smart phones will be able to make use of built-in hardware including digital video cameras, GPS, messaging and calendars. The company is working with developer Backbone Entertainment on a new game called "Shadow-Born" that will integrate the real world into the game world.
Nokia Enhanced Mobile Gaming producer/creative lead Shane Neville says that some ideas for the late-2006 title include the ability to get game information sent to your calendar, requiring you to get to a certain place in the game world at a certain time in the real world. Text messaging with in-game characters is another idea, as is having game characters phone with additional information or clues. And the ability to use a pervasive world with an always-on, always-connected phone will be an underlying theme in these new technologies.
Neville believes that the next generation of N-Gage phones will introduce new genres to gaming. Gizmondo's Peterson also talked about forging ahead in new areas. One thing's for sure: Beginning late this year, the line between reality and gaming will blur even more.