Blog Post

Virtual reality headsets are fun, but how about turning the real world into a game?

There’s a lot of buzz around virtual reality gaming headsets at the moment, with all eyes focused on Oculus Rift and Sony(s sne)’s Project Morpheus. But it’s one thing to immerse yourself in an artificial world, and another to turn the real world around you into a gaming zone.

We’ve seen a few steps in that direction, such as the alternate reality gaming efforts of Google(s goog)’s Niantic Labs, but it would be a stretch to call those immersive — which is why 13th Lab’s latest move is so interesting. Last time I covered the Swedish computer vision outfit, it was applying its technology to Mojang’s Minecraft Reality app, making it possible to superimpose a Minecraft creation on the real world in a very impressive, well-anchored way.

Now 13th Lab has made a pivot of sorts into gaming tech, crowdfunding a new platform called Rescape. As co-founder Petter Ivmark told me, “instead of you being inside the game, we bring the game outside into the real world. When you turn in real life, you turn in the game.”

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As you can see in the video above, this “reality gaming” system lets users stick their existing handset onto a vaguely gun-like holder that keeps it in front of their eyes in a relatively natural way, certainly when compared to wearing a whole new system on your head. In this case the attachment obviously lends itself to first-person shooter games — it has a trigger and a directional pad, and it comes with a fisheye lens attachment for the smartphone in order to widen the field of vision.

The game is both on the screen and in the players’ surroundings — as with the Minecraft app, 13th Lab’s technology superimposes the virtual on the real. To prepare, the user simply needs to perform a walkthrough of the playing space, which may be their apartment or office. Once they’ve done that they should be able to drop any Rescape game onto that framework, with the drab office corridor becoming part of a spacecraft or jungle temple, for example.

Ivmark explained to me that the company will be focusing on gaming for the foreseeable future:

“We’ve been heavy into R&D for the past four years. Previously we’ve released various things… and they’ve all been in some sense leading to this. We’ve always wanted to do our own product direct to the consumer and now we’ve evolved the technology so far that we can actually do it. Before it was more a technology company in search of a product.”

The company won’t strictly speaking be selling directly to the consumer — rather, it hopes to license the technology to gaming studios that want to join the Rescape platform.

The idea is not without its flaws. The big problem with augmented reality, ever since back when Layar was aiming to be more than just a marketing tech firm, is that people don’t naturally walk around holding their phone out in front of them. The Rescape prototype attachment solves that, making the phone holder an integral part of the game, but it only really solves it for first-person shooters.

Rescape attachment

Ivmark is aware of this. He told me “there could be similar type attachments for other types of games”, but acknowledged that 13th Lab hasn’t quite figured out what these might entail.

Still, the technique is a smart idea for the sizable niche it’s addressing first. As Ivmark noted, first-person shooters are big on consoles and PCs, but not so much on mobile where the screens are smaller and the controls less intuitive. The prototype attachment would certainly make for a more realistic experience.

Ultimately, there’s a lot to be said for 13th Lab’s “reality gaming” approach – for one thing, it allows for real-world peripheral vision, so it lends itself to more physical activity than virtual reality headsets do. It looks like fun, and it’s definitely an avenue worth exploring.