The seed for this post was created when something clicked together in my head while posting a comment on Stargazer’s World in response to Michael’s article; The Hobby is far from being dead! I was basically writing in a stream-of-consciousness style, when the thought of having a virtual tabletop created with Augmented Reality [AR] popped into my head.
I also see this post as a follow up to my very popular article, Untapped Potential of Technology. Where the untapped potential focused on technologies that were already mainstream and readily available yet under used; this article focuses on technologies just over the horizon.
I am certainly not the first tabletop gamer to think about using AR in conjunction with traditional gaming, as the AR part of the game being run by my alma mater, IUPUI (as reported here), was inspired by a graduate student’s desire to see 3D animations of the creatures on the table when playing Magic: the Gathering.
That’s cool, but what exactly is AR?Augmented Reality is the blending of actual and virtual reality. It is often achieved by projecting computer generated data over the real world visually. This practice is usually made possible by employing an optical aid such as VR goggles. Motion tracking, fiducial markers, and object recognition are major research areas used in Augmented Reality.
AR has very important applications in the medical and military fields and I’m sure everyone could imagine the marketing/commercial uses of the technology as well (virtual advertisements/billboards). It is already used today (yellow down markers in football, heads up displays for pilots, museum tours).
Now let’s apply the concept to the world of tabletop gaming. Envision being able to play games like Warhammer 40k or Warmachine without having to invest a fortune in miniatures and time in painting (I would still paint minis, but that’s not the point). Think about being able to see your minis animate and do battle, ala Star Wars Dejarik Holochess. Perhaps you could easily download expansions or new pieces for your favorite board game.
Hell, you might even be able to virtually appear like your character while playing that bad-ass drow assassin. Oh and what if you never had to remember or physically look up the rules again? The simplest solution would have the rule display in front of everyone playing on a virtual index card, perhaps called by voice recognition.
“Game, define grapple.”
The more complex version would give players a virtual rolodex of options based upon their character, terrain, and other elements, allowing them to execute a selection on their turn, which in turn drives the augmented miniatures. Yeah, can you dig having the goggles automatically highlight the area of effect for spells and powers?
Of course, this really begins to blur the line between a video game and the tabletop game, but we all know this is the path we are already on as each type of game continues to feed off each other. However, you still have the capability of going full manual when rules engine doesn’t provide an option.
Remote AR Tabletop
With the inclusion of Augmented Reality, the term virtual tabletop would become obsolete. Being able to game with people not at the table would be called remote tabletop gaming. The gameplay experience would be nearly identical, except you can no longer physically punch buddies in the arm (unless everyone has tactile feedback bodysuits, see below).
The AR application would project streaming video of fellow players’ faces near the tabletop and everyone would see the game table updated in real time. Everyone would have their own fiducial markers that would be integrated into the virtual tabletop.
Equipment & Peripherals
The standard equipment needed to engage an AR tabletop game would be fiducial markers (objects the AR application can easily recognize and interact with), goggles or headset, and computer to run the app. I could also see devices similar to the WiiMote being utilized to simulate the tossing of dice or other game accessories.
Think even bigger and you come up with tactile feedback devices. These would be gloves and bodysuits that stiffen and transmit sensations when they interact with the AR environment. Add some olfactory (scent) reproduction technology and you can all five senses (taste could be derived from scent).
Full Digital Integration
Access a soundtrack from your music library, play pre-packaged cut scenes in between adventures or after climactic battles, automatically create blog posts or podcasts from gaming sessions, stream live video of gameplay… the possibilities are endless.
All this could be done from interacting with the AR environment. You could have fiducial markers that represent your mp3 collection, the record button on the mic or video capture device, or the play button for a cut scene. Seamless integration with digital media, hell yeah, I get excited just thinking about it.
The first major hurdle to make this type of technology accessible is the buy-in cost. In the beginning, a set of decent VR goggles or headsets are going to be extremely expensive. But do you remember how expensive a CD player was when they first came out? Maybe not, but in 1982 when Sony released the CDP-101, it cost $900. Now you can get a portable CD player for less than $15.
The other issue that will no doubt vex corporate security assholes and users alike will be piracy and all the baggage that comes with it. I can see proprietary goggles/headsets that prevent applications from competing publishers from working on them, no compatibility, and DRM laden downloads. You know, the same bedlam that is going on today.
Early adoption is of course out of the question. No one in the tabletop industry is willing to gamble on new technology; even when the probability of said technology to become as mainstream as mobile devices are today is a sure thing. Be fearless.
I can hear the very loud voices of the dissenters and non-believers now:
“That’s not roleplaying!”
“It’s too much like virtual World of Warcraft.”
“AR will be the death of the industry/hobby/game!”
“This is heresy of the worst kind, burn in hell heretic!”
In my opinion, Augmented Reality would not change the fundamentals that make a tabletop roleplaying game what it is. It would just enhance it. As for me, I can see myself enjoying traditional tabletop gaming sans electronics just as much as an AR tabletop game. But the AR games would [eventually] be cheap, immediate, and more accessible. In the long run, it could also reduce operating and distribution costs for publishers as well as attracting new players.
This is the type of innovation we need to be looking for (and actively developing) that could revitalize and even grow the industry/hobby. Just think about the possibilities for Live Action RolePlay!
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