There’s Nothing To Be Learned From Pokemon Go

Pokemon Go is a watershed moment in gaming. I’ve never seen a game have this much traction this fast. My neighborhood is filled with wandering players of all demographics, strolling around with phone in hand looking for Pokemon. Since the game’s launch, everyday has looked like Halloween without the costumes.

In general, the job of a venture capitalist is really easy. For most, you simply wait around for another firm to invest in something and then add to that round. Or, you can wait for something to be really successful and cultivate clones of it. I can guarantee there are now a few VCs with deals in motion to build a “fast follow” mimic of Pokemon Go.

Please don’t.

There is absolutely no way another developer can duplicate the success of this game. In fact, it remains to be seen if this game will be a success beyond its initial pop. No game has ever had an opening weekend of this scale–but still, remember Draw Something or maybe even Fallout Shelter? I’m enjoying Pokemon Go myself, but many of my colleagues are questioning whether it has legs. Regardless of that, any location-based game you may be thinking of making is probably missing a few key ingredients to Pokemon Go’s success.

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My pathetically low level character

Niantic has the Best Location Data in the Business

I’ve spent time building location-based service apps in the past. The biggest problem with making games that play over the real world is populating the map with interesting stuff to do. Firstly, there’s access to map data–on Pokemon Go’s scale, this is not cheap (although there are open source solutions). Simply having a map is one piece of the puzzle–you need to have information about how the locations are used. Which places are busiest? Where do players like to group up at?

Niantic has this data from years of running Ingress–pretty much the largest location-based game ever made. Over the years Ingress was running as a project fully funded and supported by Google, Niantic built an incredibly valuable data layer on top of the real world that has been repurposed for Pokemon Go.

You could possibly license similar information from other companies (Foursquare comes to mind), but Niantic’s data is probably more geared towards the activity patterns of mobile gamers than those who want to Instagram their lunch. (Granted, there’s a lot of overlap there)

Pokemon Is One of the Biggest IPs in the World

Previous to Pokemon Go, even prior to Ingress, there have been plenty of location-based games. Anyone remember Shadow Cities? Or Booyah? They may have just been too early–back then there weren’t enough smartphones to solve the density problem you have with location-based games. Now that smartphones are ubiquitous, how do you get enough players to fill up the world map? One way is to use one of the biggest video game IPs on the planet.

The demand for Nintendo IPs on other platforms is unprecedented.  The fervor for Pokemon in particular is huge–with lots of false Pokemon apps taken off Google Play and the App Store over the years. Investors have responded to this craze, with Nintendo’s stock jumping 25% since the release of Pokemon Go.

There really isn’t another IP as big as Pokemon that can be applied to a game of this scale. Sprinkle a little Pokemon on to a little Ingress and the results are explosive.

There’s nobody else on the planet that can do this. 

HoloHacks Is A Step Towards Mixed Reality Domination for Microsoft

Microsoft has been holding a series of hackathons for their new HoloLens platform in a number of cities across the US. I couldn’t make it to the original event in Seattle, but managed to compete in HoloHacks Los Angeles at the Creative Technology Center downtown.

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The event went from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, concluding with final presentations and the judges awarding prizes to the winning apps. My team’s app, “A Day at the Museum,” won the visual design prize with a mixed reality replacement for museum audio tour earpieces.

The event worked like most hackathons I’ve attended–Come up with ideas, form teams, and get to hacking. Microsoft had us covered on the hardware front–not only did each team get to borrow two HoloLens devices, but you could even get a loaner Surface Book for the event if you don’t have a Windows PC to hack on. (As a MacBook Pro user, that option was a lifesaver)

I was lucky to sit at a table with Leone Ermer, Edward Dawson-Taylor, Chris Horton, Ed Hougardy, and Steven Winston. After brainstorming a few ideas we came up with the museum tour concept and got to work. We worked brilliantly as a team and everyone was critical in taking this project across the finish line.

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HoloHacks isn’t just a promotional event. It’s an important step in building a community around the platform. By iterating with refreshing openness and allowing even complete novice developers to build apps to learn about HoloLens’ capabilities, Microsoft is placing themselves way ahead of the competition not just in technology but in the ecosystem that supports it.

No other augmented reality platform can operate at this scale. By the time other platforms can catch up to Hololens’ features, Microsoft will have a thriving ecosystem of Windows Holographic developers that other hardware vendors just can’t compete with. Why use some other platform when you can easily find developers and tools for HoloLens to get the job done? If the competition were smart, they’d focus on the developer community aspect just as much as the technology.

Debugging HoloLens Apps in Unity3D

I’ve been developing on HoloLens for a few weeks now, and I’m being re-acquainted with the tricky part of debugging hardware-specific augmented reality apps in Unity3D. I went through a lot of these issues with my Google Tango project, InnAR Wars, and so I’m sort of used to it.  However, having to wear the display on your head while testing code brings a whole new dimension of difficulty to debugging Augmented Reality applications. I figured I’d share a few tips that I use when debugging Unity3D HoloLens apps other than the standard Unity3d remote debugging tools you are used to from mobile development.

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Debugging in the Editor vs. Device

The first thing you need to do is to figure out how test code without deploying to the device. Generating a Visual Studio project, compiling, and uploading your application to one (or more) HoloLens headsets is a real pain when trying to iterate on simple code changes. It’s true, Unity3D can do none of HoloLens’ AR features in the editor, but there are times when you just have to test basic gameplay code that doesn’t require spatialization, localization, or any HoloLens specific features. There’s a few steps to make this easier.

Make A Debug Keyboard Input System

HoloLens relies mostly on simple gestures (Air Tap) and voice for input. The first thing you need to test HoloLens code in the Unity3D editor is a simple way to trigger whatever event fires off via Air Tap or speech commands through the keyboard. In my case, I wrote a tiny bit of code to use the space bar to trigger the Air Tap. Basically–anywhere you add a delegate to handle an Air Tap or speech command, you need to add some input code to trigger that same method via keyboard.

Use An Oculus Rift Headset

I was pleasantly surprised to find out Unity HoloLens Technical Preview supports Oculus Rift. Keep your Rift plugged in when developing for HoloLens. When you run your application in the Unity editor, it will show up inside the Rift–albeit against a black background. This is extremely helpful debugging code that uses gaze, positional audio, and even limited movement of the player via Oculus’ positional tracking.

Use The HoloLens Companion App

Microsoft provides a HoloLens companion app in the Windows Store with a few handy features. The app connects to HoloLens via WiFi and lets you record videos live from the headset (very useful for documented reproducible bugs and crashes). It lets you stop and start apps remotely which can be useful when trying to launch an app on multiple HoloLenses at the same time. You can also use your PC’s keyboard to send input to a remote HoloLens. This is convenient for multiplayer testing–use Air Tap with the one on your face, the companion app to trigger input on the other device.

These tips may make building HoloLens apps a little easier, but I really hope Microsoft adds more debugging features to future versions of the SDK. There are some simple things Microsoft could do to make development more hassle-free, although there’s really a limit to what you can do in the Unity Editor versus the device.

Developing Applications for HoloLens with Unity3D: First Impressions

I started work on HoloLens game development with Unity3D over the past week. This included going through all of the example projects, as well as building simple games and applications to figure out how all of the platform’s features work.  Here’s a some takeaways from my first week as a HoloLens developer.

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Baby steps…

The Examples Are Great, But Lack Documentation

If you go through all of the Holo Academy examples Microsoft provides, you’ll go from displaying a basic cube to a full-blown multi user Augmented Reality experience. However, most of the examples involve dragging and dropping pre-made prefabs and scripts into the scene. Not a lot about the actual SDK is explained. The examples are a good way to get acquainted with HoloLens features, but you’re going to have to do more work to figure out how to write your own applications.

HoloToolkit is Incredibly Full Featured

All of the examples are based on HoloToolkit, Microsoft’s collection of scripts and prefabs that handle just about every major HoloLens application feature: input, spatial mapping, gesture detection, speech recognition, and even some networking.

I also found that features I needed (such as the placement of objects in the real world using real-time meshing as a collider) are features in the examples I could easily strip out and modify for my own C# scripts. Using these techniques I was able to get a very simple carnival milk bottle game running in a single Saturday afternoon.

Multiplayer Gets Complicated

I’m working on moving my award winning Tango RTS, InnAR Wars, to HoloLens. However, multiplayer experiences work much differently on HoloLens than Tango. In the case of Tango, each device shares a single room scan file and is localized in the same coordinate space. This means that once the game starts, placing an object (like a floating planet or asteroid) at any position will make it appear in the same real-world location on both Tangos.

HoloLens shares objects between devices using what are called Spatial Anchors. Spatial Anchors mark parts of the scanned room geometry as an anchored position. You can then place virtual objects in the real world relative to this anchor. When you share a Spatial Anchor with another device, the other HoloLens will look for a similar location in its own scan of the room to position the anchor. These anchors are constantly being updated as the scan continues, which is part of the trick to how HoloLens’ tracking is so rock solid.

Sure, having a single coordinate frame on the Tango is easier to deal with, but the Tango also suffers from drift and inaccuracies that may be symtomatic of its approach. Spatial Anchoring is a rather radical change from how Tango works–which means a lot of refactoring for InnAR Wars, or even a redesign.

First Week Down

This first week has been an enlightening experience. Progress has been fast but also made me aware of how much work it will be to produce a great HoloLens app. At least two independently published HoloLens games popped up in the Windows Store over the past few days. The race is on for the first great indie HoloLens application!

My Week With HoloLens

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Microsoft ships the HoloLens and Clicker accessory in the box

My HoloLens development kits finally arrived a week ago. I’ve spent a great deal of time using the device over the past week. I figured I’d post my impressions here.

This Really Works

When I first put my HoloLens on, I placed an application window floating above my kitchen table. Suddenly, I realized I hadn’t taken out the garbage. Still wearing the device, I ran downstairs to put something in the trash. I narrowly missed my neighbor–successfully avoiding an awkward conversation about what this giant contraption on my face does.

When I returned to my kitchen, the application was still there–hovering in space.

As I’ve stated before, Microsoft blew me away. HoloLens is an absolutely incredible leap from previous generation AR glasses (and MUCH cheaper, believe it or not). It also does everything Tango does but at a much higher level of performance and precision. Which means most applications built on Tango can be directly moved over to HoloLens.

HoloLens is fast and intuitive enough to attempt getting actual work done with it. Yet, a lot of my time spent is just trying to make silly videos like this.

It’s A Full Blown Windows Machine

HoloLens isn’t just a prototype headset–it’s a full featured desktop Windows PC on your face. Not only can you run “Windows Holographic” apps, but any Universal Windows App from the Windows Store. Instead of these applications running in a window on a monitor, they float around in space–positioned wherever you choose.

Although HoloLens really does need a taskbar of some kind. It’s way too easy to forget where Skype physically is because you launched it in the bathroom.

It also helps to connect a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse when running standard applications. Gestures can’t give you the input fidelity of a traditional mouse, and typing in the air is a chore.

HoloLens’ narrow FOV makes using a regular Windows app problematic–as the screen will get cut off and require you to move your head around to see most of it. Also, if you push a window far enough into the background so you can see the whole thing, you’ll notice HoloLens’ resolution is a little low to read small text. We’re going to need a next generation display for HoloLens to really be useful for everyday computing.

Microsoft Has Created A New Input Paradigm

HoloLens can seemingly only recognize two gestures: bloom and “air tap”. Blooming is cool–I feel like a person in a sci-fi movie making the Windows start menu appear in the air by tossing it up with a simple gesture.

The air tap can be unintuitive. Most people I let try the HoloLens poke at the icons by stabbing them with a finger. That’s not what the air tap is for. You still have to gaze at a target by moving your head and then perform the lever-like air tap gesture within the HoloLens camera’s view to select what the reticule is on.

HoloLens can track the motion of your finger and use it as input to move stuff around (such as application windows), but not detect collisions between it and virtual objects. It’s as if it can detect the amount your finger moves but not its precise location in 3D space.

Using apps while holding your hand out in front of the headset is tiring. This is why Microsoft includes the clicker. This is a simple Bluetooth button that when pressed triggers the air tap gesture. Disappointingly, the clicker isn’t trackable–so you can’t use it as a true finger replacement.

Microsoft has adapted Windows to the holographic model successfully. This is the first full blown window manager and gesture interface for augmented reality I’ve ever seen and it’s brilliant. After a few sessions with the device, most people I’ve let use it are launching apps and moving windows around the room like a pro.

This Thing Is Heavy

Although the industrial design is cool in a retro ‘90s way, this thing is really uncomfortable to use for extended periods of time. Maybe I don’t have it strapped on correctly, but after a 20 minute Skype session I had to take the device off. I felt pain above the bridge of my nose. When I looked in the mirror, I saw what can only be described as ‘HoloHead’

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The unfortunate symptom of “HoloHead”

The First Generation Apps Are Amazing

There already are great free apps in the Windows Store that show off the power of the HoloLens platform. Many made by Asobo Studio–a leader in Augmented Reality game development.

Young Conker

Young Conker is a great example of HoloLens as a games platform. The game is simple: after scanning your surroundings, play a familiar platform game over the floors, walls, tables and chairs as Conker runs, jumps and collects coins scattered about your room.

Conker will jump on top of your coffee table, run into walls, or be occluded by a chair as if he were walking behind it–well, depending on how accurate your scan is. The fact that this works as well as it does is amazing to me.

Fragments

One of the first true game experiences I’ve ever played in augmented reality. You play the part of a futuristic detective, revisiting memories of crimes as their events are re-created holographically in your location. Characters sit on your furniture. You’ll hunt for pieces of evidence scattered about your room–even under tables. It really is an incredible experience, As with Conker, it requires some pre-scanning of your environment. However, applications apparently can share scans between each other as Fragments was able to re-use a scan of my office I previously made with another app.

Skype

When Skyping with a person not using HoloLens, you simply place their video on a wall in your surroundings. It’s almost like talking to someone on the bridge of the Enterprise, depending on how big you make the video window.

When Skyping with another HoloLens user, you can swap video feeds so either participant can see through the other’s first person view. While looking at someone else’s video feed as a floating window, you can sketch over it with drawing tools or even place pictures from your photos folder in the other person’s environment. 2D lines drawn over the video feed will form around the other user’s real-world in 3D–bending around corners, or sticking to the ceiling. 

Conclusion

As a consumer electronics device, HoloLens is clearly beta–maybe even alpha, but surprisingly slick. It needs more apps. With Wave 2 underway, developers are working on just that. In my case, I’m moving all of my Tango projects to HoloLens–so you’ll definitely be seeing cool stuff soon!

HoloLens is Ready for Prime Time

Microsoft recently invited me to try out HoloLens at their Venice space on Abbot-Kinney. Having just won the AR/VR award in the Tango App Contest for InnAR Wars, I jumped at the chance.  After developing for Google Tango for over a year, I had a long wishlist of features I’m looking for in an AR platform. In the unlikely event that HoloLens was for real, I could make InnAR Wars exactly how I envisioned it at the start of the project.

Entering the Hololens Demo Zone

 

My skepticism was well warranted. Having worked in AR for the past 5 years, I’ve seen my share of fake demo videos and smoke-and-mirrors pitches. Every AR company is obligated to put out faked demo videos that they inevitably fail to live up to. Just look at this supercut of utterly ridiculous promotional videos. I was curious if the staged HoloLens demos weren’t much better.

I had heard many polarizing opinions about HoloLens from people who have tried it. Some felt it was an incredible experience while others told me it was the single most overhyped disappointment in consumer electronics history.

After trying it for myself, I can say HoloLens is the real deal.

The demo I tried was the “X-Ray” game shown at BUILD no too long ago. This version was a little simpler than this staged demonstration–your arm isn’t magically turned into a plasma cannon. Instead, your hold your hand out in front of the device and “air tap” to fire at enemies that appear to be coming out of cracks in the walls. Occasionally you can give a voice command to freeze time, Matrix-style, and take out enemies while they are vulnerable.

A simple game, for sure, but a great demonstration of the HoloLens’ capabilities.  

The device is clearly a prototype. It’s bulky, looks like a vision of the future from a ’90s sci-fi flick, and it even BSODed on me which was kind of hilarious.  Still, I was thoroughly impressed with HoloLens and here’s why:

Meshing

When the game starts, you have to look around the room and watch it build geometry out of the walls and other objects in the area. HoloLens builds a mesh out of the real world with a depth camera that is then used in gameplay. It’s kind of like building a video game level out of all the walls and floors in your room. This mesh is then used to place virtual wall cracks and spawn points for enemies during gameplay. Once you’ve build a complete mesh out of the room, the game begins.

This same meshing process is possible with Google Tango, but it’s slow and temperamental. Still, very impressive given it’s in a tablet you can buy right now. In fact, I used Tango’s meshing capabilities to place floor traps in InnAR Wars.

I was impressed with HoloLens’ rapid meshing as I moved around my environment. It even handled dynamic objects, such as the woman guiding me through the demo. When I looked at her during the meshing phase, she quickly transformed into a blocky form of red polygons.

Display

Initially I was disappointed in the display. Much like Epson’s Moverio or ODG’s R7 glasses, it projects the augmentation on a part of the “glass” in front of your eyes. This means you see a distracting bright rectangle in the middle of your vision where the augmentation will appear. Compared to ODG’s R7s, HoloLens seemed to have higher contrast between the part of the display that’s augmented and the part that’s not. There also is an annoying reflection that looks like a blue and green “shadow” of the augmentation above and below the square.

While playing the game this didn’t matter at all. Although everything is somewhat translucent, if the colors are bright enough the virtual objects appeared solid. Combined with rock solid tracking on the environment, I soon forgot all about contrast issues and internal reflection problems on the display. A these issues can be dealt with through art and the lighting of the room you are playing in. Plus, a Microsoft representative assured me the display is even better in the current version still in their labs.

Field of View

The top issue people have with HoloLens is the field of view. People complain that it only shows graphics in a postcard sized space in front of your vision. I had rock bottom expectations for this having developed applications on previous generation wearable AR displays. Although HoloLens’ augmentation is limited to a small square in front of your vision, this space is easily 2X the size of other platforms. In the heat of the action while playing X-Ray, I mostly forgot about this restriction.

Field of view is not an easy thing to solve–it’s a fundamental problem with the physics of waveguide optics. I’m not sure how much progress Microsoft can make here. But the FOV is already wide enough for a lot of applications.

I’m All In

Part of the pitch is the “Windows Holographic” platform. That is, in the future you won’t have screens. With HoloLens you’ll be able to place Windows applications in mid-air anywhere in your office. Applications will virtually float around you like monitors hovering in space. (Magic Leap’s fake demo video shows an example of how this would work) This can actually be done right now with HoloLens and existing Windows applications. Supposedly, some Microsoft engineers wear HoloLens and have integrated the “holographic” workspace into their daily use.

Beyond gaming applications, I am on board with this screen-free future. Your tablet, computer, even your phone or smartwatch will merely be a trackable object to display virtual screens on. Resolution and screen size will be unlimited, and you can choose to share these virtual screens with other AR users for collaboration.  No need to re-arrange your office for that huge 34 inch monitor. You can simply place it in 3D space and overlay it on top of reality. Think of all the extra stuff your phone could do if it didn’t have to power a giant LCD display! It’s definitely on its way. I’m just not sure exactly when.

The Challenge of Building Augmented Reality Games In The Real World

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Last week I submitted the prototype build of my latest augmented reality project, InnAR Wars, to Google’s Build a Tango App Contest. It’s an augmented reality multiplayer space RTS built for Google’s Tango tablet that utilizes the environment around you as a game map. The game uses the Tango’s camera and Area Learning capabilities to superimpose an asteroid-strewn space battlefield over your real-world environment. Two players holding Tangos walk around the room hunting for each other’s bases while sending attack fleets at the other player’s structures.

Making InnAR Wars fun is tricky because I essentially have no control over the map. The battlefield has to fit inside the confines of the real-world environment the tablets are in. Using the Tango’s Area Learning capabilities with the positions of players, I know the rough size of the play area. With this information I adjust the density of planetoids and asteroids based on the size of the room. It’s one small way I can make sure the game at least has an interesting number of objects in the playfield regardless of the size of the area. As you can see from the videos in this post, it’s already being played in a variety of environments.

This brings up the biggest challenge of augmented reality games–How do you make a game fun when you have absolutely no control over the environment in which it’s played? One way is to require the user to set up the play space as if she were playing a board game. By using Tango’s depth camera, you could detect the shapes and sizes of objects on a table and use those as the playfield. It’s up to the user to set it up in a way that’s fun–much like playing a tabletop war game.

For the final release, I’m planning on using Tango’s depth camera to figure out where the room’s walls, ceilings, and floors are. Then I can have ships launch from portals that appear to open on the surfaces of the room. Dealing with the limited precision and performance of the Tango depth camera along with the linear algebra involved in plane estimation is a significant challenge. Luckily, there are a few third-party solutions for this I’m evaluating.

Especially when looking at augmented reality startups’ obligatory fake demo videos, the future of AR gaming seems exciting. But the practical reality of designing a game to be played in reality–which is itself rather poorly designed–can prevent even the most amazing technology from enabling great games. It’s probably going to take a few more hardware generations to not only make the technology usable, but also develop the design language to make great games that work in AR.

If you want to try out the game, I’ll have a few Tangos on hand at FLARB’s VRLA Summer Expo table. Stop by and check it out!