10 best augmented reality DEVICES that will reinvent mobile video games

In my last post, I proposed a countdown of the top 10 augmented reality demos that are poised to revolutionize video games. That collection focused on concepts that inspire a totally new kind of gameplay. Novice readers testified it was a great introduction to augmented reality, while AR savvy insiders found some newly discovered ideas quite inspiring. Thank you all for the great feedback.

Now, let’s talk hardware: how in the world are we going to play these games?

Courtesy of “Window to The Future” By Steve Kosareff

AR game devices run the gamut from 20 lbs-backpack-and-head-mounted-display-systems to tiny handheld cell phones.

Once again, Marshall McLuhan’s legacy (“the medium is the message”) guides the discussion: The evolution of AR hardware devices changes the game mechanics and opens the door for a revolution in game experience.
Scholars have studied it at length (sidebar); I propose a simplified view spanning 3 generations:

The Past: Generation “Kit Bag”

Tinmith epitomizes generation “kit bag”

* took place over the last 10+ years
* custom built backpack with laptop, accessories
* head mounted display
* used exclusively in research
* groundbreaking experience yet –
* heavy, complex, and expensive

The Present: Generation “Hand Bag”

Generation “hand bag” took off with The Invisible Train
* started in 2003 with a horizon of 2010
* mass production: banking on the ubiquity of mobile devices
* aspiring for larger screens with more powerful devices
* easy to carry, ergonomic, affordable, yet –
* occupies hands, limits immersion

The Future: Generation “No Bag”

Leonard Low’s concept eyewear for augmented reality

* next 3-15 years
* eyewear: glasses and later contact lens
* handsfree; immersive
* in short: nirvana…(also means in Hindu – the end of suffering)

So, what’s the perfect device for mobile augmented reality games?

Experts argue that it depends on the type of game.
I buy that. Here’s the revised challenge: if game developers want to build a game like Roku’s Reward – what handheld device should they zero in on?

Looking at present and future generations, here is my countdown of the top 10 AR mobile devices with which developers will reinvent video games:

10. PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant)

MIT’s Environmental Detectives

PDAs knocked out the “kit bag” generation and signaled the dawn of the “hand bag” generation. They delivered mobility and extensibility (it’s easy to add a camera, GPS or other accessories) and it offered reasonable processing power.
However, with the convergence of devices such as cell phones, cameras, and the miniaturization of computers – PDAs are becoming obsolete.
Notable PDAs for AR include: iPAQ, Dell Axim, Fujitsu-Siemens, and Asus

9. UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC)

Outdoor tracking with a UMPC at the University of Cambridge

UMPCs are the most powerful handheld devices out there. Its Windows operating system makes it a familiar and practical platform for development.
Sony Vaio UX is used often by researchers; Raon Digital Everun is another candidate.
UMPCs would have been at a higher position on this list – had it not introduced 2 barriers for adoption as an AR game device: price (upwards of $1500) and size (needs a sizable bag). After all, the UMPC is designed for business – not games.

8. Smart Phones

C-Lab’s KickReal runs on a Siemens phone

If you’re after the masses, smart phones are your best bet thanks to their ubiquity (out of 1.14 billion cell phones sold in 2007 – 10% were smart phones according to IDC) . In two or three years, it will be nearly impossible to buy a conventional cell phone (as agreed at the CTIA wireless show 2008.)
So, almost everyone has them, cameras are getting better, they’re adding accelerometers, and positioning capabilities and some games have proven to work on this type of devices.
Popular mobile phones (sorted by OS popularity according to canalys) include Symbian, Microsoft, RIM, iPhone, Palm (Acquired by Access), and Linux.
Google’s Android phone has ambitions to carve its niche, but has still a long way to go (too slow, not stable). It may emerge as a viable option in 2009.
One AR company suggests the HTC P6500 as “a good approach [for augmented reality games] with faster and easier development tools.”
But because of its small screen, low end processors, and major market fragmentation – smart phones cant leap beyond the 8th spot.

7. iPhone

The iPhone could surpass other game devices (Roughly Drafted Magazine )

Though considered a smart phone – owing to its unmatched user experience – the iPhone deserves its own category.
Its form factor, touch screen, accelerometer, more modern technology, and now with an open SDK – it’s irresistible.
Although Apple is not known as a great gaming company there are currently 373 games listed under iPhone webapps.
Apple’s total control of the whole product compared with Gphone’s patchwork of multiple companies will result in a better experience.

6. Handheld Game Devices (PSP, Gizmondo, Nintendo DS)

Gizmondo used for the Caleb project at Graz University

Handheld game devices are leading the growth in the game hardware market. Some people believe they will cut into the console market. Devices such as Sony’s PSP, Nintendo DS (and Gizmondo assuming it will indeed reemerge) have a great form factor – and the fact that they are designed specifically for games, gives them an edge over general purpose devices.
But here’s the caveat: PSP and the DS need to be complemented with accessories such as camera, as well as accelerometers, positioning and ubiquitous connectivity capabilities – to be able to play in this game.

5. Nokia Phones (N Series)

MARA project at Nokia

Haven’t we already covered smart phones at #8?. Well, Nokia isn’t just another smart phone company. Through extensive research, it pushes the envelop of augmented reality experiments on phones more than any other manufacturer.
Notable devices include N-81, N95, N-810.
The feature packed multimedia heavy N95 stands out as the most popular among researchers despite some limiting factors:
* runs on symbian – not great for heavy programming
* small 2.6” screen with 240 x 320 pixels only
* Expensive (above $500) and not really for mass market

4. MID (Mobile Internet Devices)

Intel announced these MIDs to be released in 2008

Intel is putting its muscle behind the MID. The MID is designed for multimedia consumption on the go. It’s extremely portable with an ideal screen size (4-5”); it’s fully connected and armed with a strong (low power consumption) processor. The fact that it runs on a scaled down Linux makes it accessible and fast. But, what really separates it from the UMPC is its sub $500 target price.
Before year end ,Intel hardware partners are planning to release these products: LG Xnote, BenQ, Aigo, Lenovo MID.
Although experts have no real world experience with the MID – it’s shaping up as the preferred choice; if you plan to develop an augmented reality game this year – I would single out the MID as your #1 device.

When the flood of MIDs comes upon us, here is the criteria I suggest to separate the wheat from the chaff:
* screen size between 3.5″-5.5″ (4″-5″ ideal)
* min 65K colors, 800×480 pixels
* strong processor – min 400MHz
* with CGI acceleration (e.g. NVidia APX2500, TI OMAP 3)
* ubiquitous connectivity with cell (3G) and wifi/wimax
* high quality video camera: resolution (640×480), 30 fps
* positioning capabilities (GPS or software based locationing)
* inertial sensors, accelerometers, digital compass
* blue tooth for adding essential accessories
* touch screen – nice too have
* price – below $500; $200 would be ideal for the masses

Now let’s delve into the future; here devices become more conceptual, which means – not proven, yet stimulating. Prepare to be audaciously hopeful.

3. Looking glass (design concept)

In its designer Mac Funamizu’s own words:

“This is what I wish the Internet search will be able to do with a mobile device in the NEAR future. Touch screen, built in camera, scanner, WiFi, Google map (hopefully Google earth), Google search, image search… all in one device. Like this way, when you can see a building through it, it gives you the image search result right on the spot.”

Will anyone ever build it? I don’t know – but it sure looks cool.

2. Glasses

Mirage Innovations is one of the contenders for the future generation

Nokia dubbed mobile phones as the 4th screen (following cinema, TV, PC). According to this count, glasses will be the 5th screen. It spearheads the next generation of augmented reality: the “no bag generation”. This is when we become liberated. Handsfree. The interactive overlays on top of reality surround us anywhere we look. Can we start developing games for glasses? not quite yet. They still lack built in cameras, eye tracking, and tend to cause dizziness. Should we start thinking about it? Absolutely. Rolf Hainich has dedicated a book to this concept and aptly called it the end of hardware. Ben Averch writes about this market in his future-looking blog.

Companies to watch:

Microvision is working on lightweight eyewear for augmented reality

Lumus Optical has just launched their new and slick eyewear

Vuzix from military to consumer video eyewear

Here is the criteria I recommend to use to evaluate the progress of contending eyewear companies:
* looks and weighs like regular sun glasses
* see thru, high resolution display
* integrated camera
* eye tracking
* position and movement sensors
* integrated sound

1. Contact Lens

Darpa project for the creation of micro- and nano-scale display technologies

Apart from topping the list of “things you wouldn’t borrow from a friend”, contact lens leap to the top spot of AR devices. Normally, the mere thought would be scientifically dismissed as “too far off”, but this Darpa project makes it slightly more conceivable. In Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End near future novel – everybody (except retreads) wears them. It becomes a natural extension of human intelligence, with user interface that can be summed as squint and gesture. It gives itself away only due to the occasional blank stare which is typically confronted with: “are you googling again!?”.
The story is taking place in 2025. Not too far off.

Back to the present: Scientists at the University of Washington have already created a proof of concept – see video below.

Didn’t make the list
* Laptops – laptops were used extensively during the “kit bag” generation as a key ingredient of the back pack, but during the hand bag generation – no one wants to the roam the streets tethered to a laptop. First implementation of Plundr ran on a laptop – but gamers soon clamored for the Nintendo DS version.
* Zune – should it be?…
* Brainchips – beyond the horizon of contact lens lies the world of brainchips . I am not touching this one with a 12 foot pole…I consider myself a technology enthusiast, but this makes me feel uneasy. I want to always have the choice to de-augment my reality when I’ve had enough. Hard connections into my brain may deprive me from that right.

Many thanks to the expert contributors: Daniel Wagner, Charles Woodward, Blair McIntyre, Peter Wojtowicz, and Jose Carlos dos Santos Danado (YDreams).
What’s your take? I really want to hear from you.

53 Responses

  1. Do you know about GestureTek’s motion-sensing software that lets people control mobile games and applications just by tilting or shaking their phone? This software has been available for years on millions of mobile devices around the world. The technology is also used in interactive displays and digital signs, so that people to play motion-controlled games on mall floors, store windows and even bar tops. This Wii-like technology can be immersive and interactive. The difference is that people see their ACTUAL real-time image onscreen as they play in a virtual reality environment. And they don’t need to use a remote. See it at http://www.gesturetek.com or http://www.gesturetekmobile.com.

  2. This is a shameless plug, but related to your post.

    Wherigo was recently launched on Garmin’s new Colorado device. Though low tech in a Zork kind of way, the geocaching community is creating new caches that involve solving puzzles using locations as a trigger. I expect that augmented reality will be more evolutionary than revolutionary.

  3. I think glass’s are the thing to concentrate on.
    Its achievable today, with just a slight refinement of present tech.

    Contact Len’s I think are far-far future. Maybe 50 years, even with a singularity happening.
    Getting it cheap, comfortable, durable, with wifi (or small cabel) too/from eye is going to be extremely hard.

    Glass’s for now, and I second having wiimote-like pizo-electric sensors.
    They are cheap, and should be on practicaly everything really :p

  4. I think glass’s are the thing to concentrate on.
    Its achievable today, with just a slight refinement of present tech.

    Contact Len’s I think are far-far future. Maybe 50 years, even with a singularity happening.
    Getting it cheap, comfortable, durable, with wifi (or small cabel) too/from eye is going to be extremely hard.

    Glass’s for now, and I second having wiimote-like pizo-electric sensors.
    They are cheap, and should be on practicaly everything really :p

  5. iphone downloads…

    Your post is interesting. Btw, need some advice here. Which MP3 player is the best?…

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  10. Nice Blog……I like the wrap up on AR.


    At CES next week we will be announcing a new pair of Video Eyewear that look very much like sunglasses and are see thru fr AR. If you would like more information please let me know; I can send pics and a press release.

    If you attend CES….Please stop by the booth.

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  12. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  13. *4 days of tetris behind with the new lens-screen*
    AHH!!! my eyes!! they are burning xD

  14. Check out this post I noticed over at IdeaStorm….I voted it up


    Sounds abit like the Looking Glass concept at top

  15. I’m still of the opinion that HMDs/Glasses will be here VERY soon, for AR applications.

    The thing about that is, we still don’t have the processing power necessary, in such a small device, as lightweight glasses. So the glasses display will be here before the processing power can fit in them. Bare with me.

    Personally I think what we’ll see is HMDs/Glasses will become an (important) accessory, like the bluetooth earpieces of today, for smart-phones. The smart phones will become the processing unit, and will rarely leave your pocket. The glasses will either be attached by a wire down into your pocket smartphone, or will somehow just link up wirelessly to the phone, if that’s possible.
    I mean, we’re already starting to see phones with the processing power… and it probably wont be long till phones have the same or more power than a laptop of today… So this just seems natural.

    Of course, eventually, the phone will be phased out entirely, but that’s probably a ways off. We could almost do the Smartphone+HMD thing today, if we tried hard enough, and had the software to do it.

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  18. I had a dream like this once. But if we do come up to the time where it is a open public item I would say we are now in tommarow.

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  23. What about web based OS streaming through an HMD. With LTE, WiMax and Chromium OS it seems the foundation for this type of device is being setup. We’ve spent decades trying to make a device capable of immense computing power available to every person. The computers have shrunk and become more powerful as a result. However now that we have, or are at least are developing robust networks, we have the ability for cloud based computing. This makes it so that physical hardware is nonessential. The rumored google tablet is basically a flash based tablet with little real power. I think that a HMD with a similar approach will allow for the first real HMD displays. Eventually tech will become small enough where we can shove it into the device. But by that point it probably won’t be necessary.

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