Interacting With Virtual Characters in AR, and Loving It!

scary-zombie-imgAs a cognitive psychologist as well as game designer, I am intrigued with how traditional play patterns are evolving, given digital games like Pokemon Go that take place in the real world. Add sophisticated augmented reality to the mix, where virtual characters know where they are located vis-à-vis everything else, and it’s a game changer.

Think about it. What if, instead of simply collecting a Pokemon character, you could play tag with Pikachu? What if Haunter actually hid behind a rock and shouted “boo” as you walked by?  What if you were in a race with Growlithe to see who could get to the next Pokemon gym first? Given these kinds of real world, intelligent interactions, Pokemon characters would be dramatically more engaging than their 2D, screen-bound, counterparts. When virtual characters play along with us, we can reimagine almost every traditional game and gameplay pattern, from football to board games to dramatic play.

Charizard hides behind a real life rock in Google’s original April Fool’s video, a feature not present in the final game.

Why haven’t we seen this type of gameplay yet? A simple reason. The technology that supports it isn’t out in the marketplace yet. Before a 3D virtual character can interact with a game player, the avatar must know where it is in space. This kind of character “intelligence” requires 3D cameras and software that can scan an environment and learn the location of everything, including the game player. (A virtual Pokemon character can’t actually sit on a real park bench until it knows that an object with a particular shape exists in the real world.) Not until the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro launches this Fall, will there be a mass market phone that has the requisite Tango software and 3D cameras that can provide sophisticated augmented reality.

My company, Legacy Interactive, is developing an AR game for devices with Tango.  Since our licensing partner is Crayola and our app is geared to ages 6 and up, we originally thought about designing an AR coloring book. It was fun to color virtual 3D objects like trees and flowers appearing in actual room locations, but it quickly became obvious that this only scratched the surface of what is possible.

20160825_174928We thought about variations of games like tag, freeze tag, capture the flag, hide and go seek, scavenger hunts, etc. and how our coloring book app could be more interactive with the addition of virtual characters. The story line practically wrote itself! A mad scientist takes away all the color in the world, and sets wave after wave of colorless 3D zombies after you. Your task is to color blast them first, before they “tag” you and “crunch” your color, forcing you to find new color buckets and replenish your color.  Meanwhile, the zany professor taunts you between each wave; you have to ultimately find and chase him in the big boss fight.  All of this takes place inside an actual room, while you run around frantically, trying to avoid marauding zombies, and find new paint and special objects to appease them.

Screenshot_20160902-163317What are some other ideas for interacting with virtual characters in our upcoming Tango app?

  • The virtual character wants an object that is hidden in the real world. You must use logic to figure out where it is located and bring it to him.
  • Like color resist, you have to color blast your entire environment in order to “reveal” the virtual objects and “hidden” characters that have been there all the time.
  • Coloring special virtual objects placed in the environment, perhaps combined with a specific color, e.g., rainbow, sparkles, unlocks a special power up,
  • Change your room into new game environments by walking through a magical door or completing a puzzle.  “Poof!” We’ve re-skinned your bedroom with a whole new look and new gameplay parameters, allowing games to progress through a series of scenes and characters. Your room first appears as a dungeon, where you battle orcs, then a spaceship where you befriend little green aliens (my personal favorite).

screenshot_20160902-170508It’s hard to describe, until you’ve actually experienced it, how much fun it is to run around a room, trying to “tag” a virtual character before they tag you. And the more intelligent they seem, by changing their behavior according to where you are in the room or what physical objects are present, the more satisfying the interactions. With this first iteration of Tango, the device only knows that there is an object present of specific dimensions. Eventually the software will be able to identify what the object actually is, e.g. a ball, a table, a refrigerator, and how it can be used. This will open up even more types of interesting interactions with virtual characters.

I can’t wait. This is an extraordinarily exciting time to be designing games. The combination of real world locations, physical movement, and virtual 3D objects and characters that know where you are, provide a rich tapestry of opportunity for game designers.

Look for Legacy’s new AR game, Crayola Color Blaster, in the Google Play store this Halloween!