If you wanted to recreate Twisted Metal on your living room floor, without violating federal law or immolating the cat, the result might look something like Anki Overdrive. Developed by roboticists who met while attending Carnegie Mellon University, the game consists of toy cars that follow an infrared track printed on vinyl. For the most part, they steer themselves as you fire away with lasers and nukes at your opponents’ cars with a smartphone or tablet controller (Mario Kart is the obvious digital analogue). A recent Medium essay neatly places Anki Overdrive at the forefront of a rich, model-car racing history. It’s more than that, though. Anki Overdrive is emblematic of the weird liminal space between physical and digital games.
It’s also the spot where push comes to shove and we have to ask: Why keep games in two separate boxes?
Though it brings the issue into sharp relief, Anki isn’t the first product to exploit the white space between the digital and the physical. You could argue the most successful mashups largely consist of video game peripherals — think: Big Game Hunter or Rock Band. There’s also the unlockable character via IRL figurine, a path well-worn by Disney Infinity or Wii U’s Amiibo. But meshing toys with video screens can be far bolder than hitting keys on a plastic guitar or unlocking new characters. As Anki shows, there’s always room for adding missiles and lasers. It’s really only a matter or what comes next.
Once you’ve mastered the basics of flight and have exhausted all the best GoPro angles of your local park, drones don’t necessarily offer a ton to do. That’s not to knock photography, if that’s your game — but unless you’re into racing, the world of quadcopters isn’t terribly competitive. The aerial slugfest of Game of Drones requires safety nets and risks damage to delicate equipment. It’s great, but not practical for your average John Drone.
What if you could replicate this experience in augmented reality? You’d need to give drones virtual hit points, tack on the Anki Overdrive ethos of weapons that only exist within an app, and up your distracted flying game (so give yourselves some breathing room), and you could have the best dogfighting simulator this side of 1993’s Star Wars: X-Wing.
There have been a few attempts to bring video game graphics to the kitchen table, but none have achieved the success of plastic-only wargames. Part of that is entrenched popularity: Games Workshop’s Warhammer has been a stalwart of miniatures gaming since it stormed on the scene in 1983, and it’s branched into several offshoots (Warhammer 40,000 probably the most popular of these).
What hasn’t happened yet — but easily could — is creating collectible figurines with digital components (like Disney Infinity) that you play with on a surface (like Warhammer or Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures). If wargames have a weakness, it’s that they can get bogged down in measuring distances and rolling dice, something that a networked system could solve easily with Bluetooth and a random number generator. That you might be able to hold up a tablet and see an augmented-reality version of your futuristic war machines launch a mini warhead across the room is just gravy.
Augmented reality is technologically challenging. As Google Glass showed, getting consumers to buy into your wearable scheme might even be tougher. The next wave of AR will be visually astounding, if we can trust Hololens and Magic Leap demos (which, maybe we can’t trust them as much as we’d like, as the most impressive visuals come from devices that haven’t been squished to a headset yet). Still, it’s not hard to picture that if you can do something like this …
… you could grab your goggles and a toy blaster and live out your Ender’s Game Battle Room fantasies while sucking down fresh air. How’s about that for an anti-obesity plan, Michele?
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