Ghosts in the machine: Android phones to transform video gaming

11 Jun 2009

The Vikings are coming! Powerful new Google Android-powered smart phone devices are being used across Dublin to spearhead the introduction of a new interactive game that will make the player not only fitter but more knowledgeable about the city.

Viking Ghost Hunt is a video game currently being developed at the €25m National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) in the Liberties.

The project capitalises on location-based gaming where the user moves around Dublin City to advance in the game. It includes physical exercise elements that expand on the storyline. The project was one of six health-based projects that won funding totalling €2m.

The NDRC is a not-for-profit research body that replaced the failed Massachusetts Institute of Technology MediaLab venture in Dublin’s Liberties area. The project was founded by a consortium of universities and supported by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to act as a bridge between academia and the digital industry.

The game itself will be an engaging mystery adventure, bringing users through some of Dublin’s most exciting and historically significant Viking sites.

Compared with traditional gaming, which is essentially sedentary – ie in front of a TV or PC – a central aspect of the project will be to evaluate the health benefits arising from users’ movement around the city.

The project, led by Dr Mads Haahr, uses the latest Google Android devices’ telemetry capabilities and is a collaboration with Trinity College Dublin.

According to Viking Ghost Hunt’s commercial lead Dan Crowley the game isn’t specifically targeted at tourists but at a broader audience that includes city residents. In effect, the game’s technology could be played in any city around the world.

“It’s a location-aware games system based on the Google Android mobile operating system. The concept is to embed a video game into your immediate surroundings. We decided to prove the concept using Dublin’s cultural heritage and Viking past to build the game.

“These advanced handsets are location aware and come with advanced telemetry capabilities. While Google is not formally involved we have engaged with the company.”

If the Viking Ghost Hunt team are successful with the technology it could spark a whole new genre in gaming and could invoke fields such as augmented reality, where information and location work together visually.

But the main area where the game platform could be popular is in the area of medical health and general fitness. In a games world, where platforms like the Nintendo Wii have evolved the traditional gaming experience into a fitness and health regime, Crowley reckons the NDRC team’s platform will be popular with people who like to stay fit, albeit outdoors.

“Think of it as a way of helping people who would otherwise be sedentary to move around outside. A person who may not be in the habit of walking or jogging but who needs to get active will find it will also be a fun and knowledge-enhancing experience.

“This ties in with the NDRC’s strategy of developing digital products that address an underlying aim or broader set of values – products that can scale and get to market.”

Android is a new mobile platform created by Google and is about to be launched on a plethora of phones by most major manufacturers. It is expected that Vodafone Ireland and O2 Ireland will be launching phones such as the HTC Magic and Samsung I7500 in the coming months.

The technology is also being used by manufacturers such as Acer and Archos to drive next-generation netbooks – or smartbooks – which are computers with the always-on nature of 3G mobile phones.

“We found that Android phones are the most advanced in terms of capabilities and we are finding that handset providers and mobile operators are moving to the platform rapidly,” Crowley explains.

The momentum for Android is growing and last week Cork firm LouderVoice launched Ireland’s very first mobile software application to be available on the Android Market, Google’s answer to the iTunes App Store.

Augmented reality, where users can look through a camera-phone screen and see bits of information, such as GPS directions or advertisements based on where the phone is, will bring the real-world dimension to gaming and services.

Crowley says the NDRC team aims to commercialise the application by forging links with partners with the vision to bring it to market.

“The focus of the NDRC is to take this cutting-edge technology from the lab and put it out there in the street. You are seeing what’s possible with Google’s StreetView.

Imagine if that information was constantly flowing directly into your handsets, meaning you could game against other players on the network, date or access services like restaurants and find points of interest,” he concludes.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: holding the latest Google Android device, which uses augmented reality to play video games on Dublin streets and get fit, is NDRC’s Dr Mads Haahr