Monday, March 25, 2013

Somebody Make This: Ultimate Playtime with My Daughter

As a father, gamer, and technology enthusiast I often look for ways to belond the multiple facets of my life together. This isn't a new subject; I have talked about this sort of thing at length in the past.

As I am sitting at Starbucks (yes, I am being one of "those people" today), I was my mind was blown apart by the collision/mashup of several things I have been reading about lately. The fused result of this explosion was this: the next evolution in gaming for my daughter.

Imagine This
I can still recall playing with Transformers, He-Man, and G.I. Joe action figures as a youngster and, when I watch my daughter play with her My Little Pony and Barbie collection I am amazed at the commonalities between the genders. Let me try to take you there.

You are sitting on your knees, raised just high enough to see the "action" unfold on your bed. But wait - it isn't your bed, is it? No, of course not. Sometimes it is a mountainous, rugged region resembling a scene at the Grand Canyon. At other times it is a lush rainforest with exotic animals - some of which are alien in nature - lurking about and swinging from tree to tree. Your knees and legs no longer exist and it's a good thing, too - if they did they would be fully submerged in the deepest lake or river imagineable. When you are playing with those figures, the room of the "real world" disappears and is replaced by the canvas of your imagination.

The End Game
You arrive home with your new figure - perhaps it's a Monster High doll that seems to be "the thing" for my 7 year old right now - after a fun-filled shopping trip with your parent. You rush to your room and rip open the packaging (likely losing a plastic hair brush or shoe temporarily in the process) and hold the newly-freed doll up to your eyes for closer inspection. Your index fingers happens across the magic button recessed into the back of the doll and you push it with excitement.

With just a few blinks from the tiny LED in its back, the doll begins emitting a unique identifier, a string of characters, wirelessly into the room for anything that can respond to pick up. The glasses you have on, forgotten in the constant daily use, come to life again and and ask if you want to add the new doll, named "Frankie", to your existing collection to which you quickly say, "Yes!"

You saddle up to the bed as you always have done and, with anticipation at a crescendo, you say, "Monster High... Hallway!" Once again, invisibly to you or anyone else in the room, your glasses come to life and use the built-in 3D scanning capabilities, akin to the Kinect, and scan the space you are looking at. Instantly the glasses are able to calculate the 3D space you are playing in and begin to transform your surroundings.

In a blink your comforter smooths out and becomes a polished, checkered floor. Lockers, shaped like coffins, grow from the floor and now line the walls that form the boundaries of your bed. Faintly you begin to hear a sound - the distinctive "clop" of a high-heel on a hard surface. As the noise grows and multiplies, you start to see where it is coming from as the unnamed student body of Monster High begins to mingle in the hallway before you.

Still clutching your Frankie, you thrust her forward into the mix. With only a second of delay, the student body seems to become aware of Frankie's presence, weaving around her, shouting, "Hey Frankie!" from the background, and - for some - giving her a wayward glance. Your new Frankie is now fully immersed in the Monster High environment that you have come to love from the cartoon episodes and movies.

As you twist the doll to face you, you can't help but feel that this will be boring without some friends, or "frenemies", to talk to so you quickly reach over and retrieve "Cleo" from the tidy storage compartment you keep all of these dolls in (a dad can dream, right?). Pressing the little button on the backside of Cleo signals your glasses that you are ready to include Cleo in the mix. As you bring the second doll into view of the glasses, the environment becomes aware of Cleo's presence and reacts similarly to your introduction of Frankie. Frankie even seems to become aware of Cleo when you hear her say, "Hey there, Cleo! What's up?"

How Far Can You Go
With this sort of system, it isn't a stretch to think that play sets (with real-world items) could register new environmental images or further interact with the characters. Having someone over to play could be even more immersive with both "players" seeing the elements of the environment that the other brings to the table. Environments could be unlocked by purchases or free downloads (or even streaming).

Remember those special episodes of your favorite morning cartoon where the characters from another popular show were visiting? You can mashup and create an amazing mix of options just like that or stay an environmental purist.

Perhaps your GI Joe figurines come under attack from COBRA soldiers and each "joe" has an action button on it. In this case, you might actually be able to see rendered blasts and the firefight that ensues between the two factions. Environmental damage? I don't see why not!

The Tech Behind
I think it is only fair to talk about the technology that is either currently available or on the near-horizon that is driving my imagination and desire to see something similar to that described above to to fruition. These pieces, themselves building upon the great technological structures that have come before them, will undoubtedly serve as the building blocks to this vision.

Skylanders - Again, not the first to blend real-world toys/figures with a digital presence, but definitely the leader. Their platform for all the major consoles has been an overwhelming success and the constant expansion of the Skylander universe is incredible. My niece and nephew have collected nearly every figure and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Disney Infinity - Building upon the success of Skylanders, this similar concept expands upon the existing leader by introducing the "Toy Box" - the ability to build your own adventure from the components of the worlds that you already "own" via the purchased figures, cards, etc. With a deep library of characters at its disposal and existing familiarities with the movie franchises under its control, Disney/Pixar has a lot to offer.

Microsoft Kinect - While intended originally for the Xbox 360 game console, this peripheral can now be integrated with PC software. That mixed with the native 3D depth and visual field capabilities opens up some amazing possibilities that have already started being explored.

Google GLASS - Google is the first company to show a real consumer-level peripheral that mixes the digital with the "real" without impeding your vision. With Google's track record for innovation, it isn't hard to see that this will materialize into scenarios of sci-fi legend.

The Brands - In order for any of it to matter, those same companies that are already producing the bulk of items found in your average kid's room will need to hop on the wagon and try to get ahead of the curve. Integration with this sort of technology will strengthen a brand's presence while being late to the party could jeopardize its future. Hasbro, Mattel, Lego, and Bandai - you are up to bat and it's on you to knock this out of the park.

Putting It All Together
So, after all this, we have to face it: we won't see this device or the software in the next year. What we will see is peripherals launching, competition in those device classes, and a scramble to find the reason consumers demand for them will increase. I think I have a compelling argument for why this could be a strong contender and when the second or third generation comes about, prices and capabilities will be where they need to be to make this ultimate playtime a reality.

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