In the world of wearable video games, a new challenger appears
91 percent of mobile developers are focused only on the touch screen and not the myriad other sensing capabilities involved in smart devices -- a massive unexplored opportunity, according to one new company that believes future portable video games won't be necessarily tied to smartphones at all.
Menlo Park, CA-based Mind Pirate, founded late last year, has just emerged out of stealth mode with $2.5 million in seed capital from two venture capital partners, and it's acquired game developer Twyngo (whose iOS game Amazing Ants saw some 2 million installs in its first 11 days) into lead its exploration of designs for late-model phones and tablets -- as well as next-generation wearable tech, like Google Glass.
It's part of funder Bessemer Venture Partners' roadmap to further investments in next-gen mobile tech, and Mind Pirate founder Shawn Hardin (pictured) was formerly BVP's entrepreneur-in-residence. He tells Gamasutra that Silicon Valley VCs see enormous market opportunity in the next wave of portable devices, predicting $5.2 bilion of new market value in the next four years for mobile augmented reality.
"25 percent of that, they're estimating, will go to games, and another 25 percent to entertainment and multimedia," says Hardin, citing mobile specialist firm Juniper Research. "The rate of growth is explosive and extraordinary."
The Callisto Engine for game developersAs part of Mind Pirate's positioning plan for that anticipated growth, it's also developing a game development platform, the Callisto Engine, that it'll eventually license to game developers looking for under-explored opportunities in late mobile hardware as well as to leverage the capabilities of future tech.
"It's designed to make as easy as possible the transition of game design from a touch-centric experience to one that embraces the unique dynamics of wearable tech, and the sensing capabilities of modern mobile design," Hardin tells Gamasutra.
There's enormous opportunity in the fact that so few games have fully explored the capabilities of smartphones, including gyroscope, accelerometer, compass, image senors, proximity sensors, internet connectivity, GPS and beyond. Now that the mobile games space has matured on smartphones, Hardin expects more game makers are going to want to experiment and be less risk-averse -- especially as he also believes wearable technology will "rapidly diminish, or completely eliminate" the role of the touchscreen in modern experience design.
Augmented reality game design is nothing new, though: Geolocation games, mobile-supported ARGs, and other AR experiences that depend on voice and sound have come to market with relatively little fanfare. Hardin admits that past AR applications have been limited to cool gimmicks that are fun to show friends, but lack long-term engagement.
"It's challenging enough in the increasingly crowded and competitive mobile space to create awareness and discovery, so to then add onto that a requirement that people have to change where they are in the world to play your game, that's a high bar," he says. "The value hasn't been there to date."
"There are lots of key learnings from that first chapter, and one of them is that there are ways to take advantage of the fact that the device understands its location and knows your routines, your work, your home," Hardin continues. Though the company isn't yet prepared to speak specifically about its design plans, he notes "there can be value in dynamics that don't disrupt, but complement what you're already doing."
GimmicksAnother failing from the first wave of device-oriented augmented reality experiences is that many of them were designed to show off a particular hardware functionality, not to be self-sustaining experiences in and of themselves. With mobile games getting ever more robust, single-gimmick hardware projects of that sort are unlikely to stand out or satisfy users, Hardin theorizes.
"The way we think about it is that we're not an 'augmented reality game company,' we're a company focused on a couple of theses: One of them being the under-utilization of the current state of smartphones and tablets. As we develop technology and expertise in that space, we see it scaling into a myriad of new form factors where touch is increasingly less dominant," he explains.
"The device translates gestures, behaviors and actions into new forms of engagement and control. There's the orientation of the device, and motion -- look at the Wii, where fun dynamics emerged that aren't taken advantage of yet on the mobile platform," continues Hardin. "Another sensing ability is how this very, very personal supercomputer in your pocket knows a great deal about you, whether you're riding your bike, at work or asleep, and how might those insights be brought into game design and game experience."
Games will lead the adoption of augmented reality experience on future wearable devices with "binocular, glass form factors" -- Hardin's company is fond of the catchphrase that "within the next five years, eyephones will replace iPhones" -- but Google Glass isn't the limit of that potential, the company believes. "There's all kinds of interesting hardware coming very soon that hasn't been announced -- Google Glass is part of the evolution of our space, but it's not the be-all end-all."
Privacy concernsThe promise of next-generation wearable tech has already prompted much speculation, even some controversy, about the role of technology in our lives. As more products and services emerge that promise to "know" their users, privacy concerns abound, as well as do questions about how technology may affect our interactions with others. Lots of industry-watchers feel ambivalent about interacting in a world where everyone has a supercomputer in their direct line of gaze. Do users really want a yet more-intimate relationship with devices, even for gaming?
"I think the discussion tends to be a bit binary, where it's all great or all horrible," Hardin replies. "The most likely outcome is that these things are going to come, and offer a tremendous amount of value, and we've seen users are in fact willing to give up quite a lot of information for the right exchange of value. The interfaces that are emerging and that will emerge are not always going to be in your face and bothering you, but very helpful and utilitarian. I think it's more fluid than we're seeing the conversation play out, and I think the value is going to be so clear it's going to drive a lot of adoption."
"With the continuing debate around privacy, we see how stark and different those [issues] are based on generation, and how profoundly that has changed in the last five years with Facebook's rise to incredibly success," he adds. "People are demonstrably giving up extraordinary amounts of information and loving it, and being extremely pleased with the value they're getting back. That's the model we're looking at with the new wearable tech space."
A market that's bound to be competitiveCurrently Mind Pirate is "deep in user tests" with its first game, set to release this fall, and has already begun conversations with developers about its Callisto technology. "There are quite a few folks we're talking to in all aspects of the ecosystem -- I can tell you there are quite a lot of new things coming to the market we're really excited about. We've all seen the same rumors about Microsoft's watch, and Google's watch, and patents they have on AR, and I think there's an inevitability to this," he predicts.
"Google has announced they'll release some version of Glass next year, so expect quite a few competitive products when that comes out. I think it's going to be an interesting situation, where rapid-iterative consumer experience improvement cycles will probably very quickly drive some pretty compelling innovation."