Develop meets the team on the frontier of wearable computing
[This feature was published in the October 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad]
Since Google’s Glass was unveiled in 2011, the impact it may have on gaming has been the subject of much imaginative speculation.
The public’s thirst for wearable gadgetry has been fuelled by concept videos showing a walk to work reimagined as a first-person shooter and commentators predicting bold new AR-based genres. But what is the reality of making a game for the Glass, where widely available game-specific middleware is but a thing of fancy, and even getting to hold the hardware remains the reserve of a chosen few? And how relevant is wearable tech to the future of games development?
One studio that is closer than most to knowing the answer is AMA, the French developer of Glass game Escape, which enjoyed much attention at this year’s GDC Europe and Gamescom.
The game is by necessity a simple creation; something of a hybrid of arcade icon Frogger and tabletop classic peg solitaire. Escape is controlled through Glass’ touch sensitive side panel, and offers just a glimpse of what might be possible with hardware you can wear.
Escape’s status as the first Google Glass game is difficult to establish when the hardware is yet to enjoy a true consumer release; BrickSimple’s GlassBattle, for example, was shown before Escape, but ‘release date’ rarely means much on tech still in development.
What does matter is that AMA has made a Glass game, and that puts them in extremely limited company. Indeed, their unit is one of only a handful in Europe outside of Google’s laboratories. What’s more, along with Escape, they have another three Glass games and app prototypes underway.
“Wearable technology is by itself very exciting,” offers AMA’s head of production Guillaume Campion. “And this is just the beginning. Google Glass is a great platform to start with. Even if the design and the interface are very new and innovative, the hardware and the fact that it runs on Ice Cream Sandwich are pretty common.
“This is really a key point that allows us to focus on what is major, [for example], the user interface display. As a games developer, we love to brainstorm about new gameplay, new game mechanics, so working on such a new device is definitely the kind of challenge we look forward to when choosing to work in this industry.”
Campion’s comments give just a glimpse of the attitude that secured AMA early Glass access. Sat down to discuss making games for the hardware, he is immediately focusing on what comes after Glass. But the team is equally modest.
Ice Cream Sandwich may be familiar territory for many developers, but knowledge of common SDKs and APIs are not all that is needed to make a game. That’s especially true when the hardware offers as unusual a combination of inputs as touch sensitive arms, an eye-level camera, voice recognition, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, a magnetometer, ambient light and proximity sensors, and visuals delivered through an optical head-mounted display.
But, insists AMA senior programmer Andrei Urucu, beyond challenges around the unusual ‘screen’ and controls Glass presents, little troubled the Escape team from a technical perspective. “The basic Android SDK and APIs were used; not the Mirror API,” he explains. “There were challenges related to the unusual screen size, density and controls. Also, in order for voice controls to work, we had to make some tweaks, but nothing unorthodox.”
A DIFFERENT GLASS
So it might just be that making Google Glass games, from a technical standpoint at least, is something most developers will find relatively easy; if anything is ever simple in the realm of games making.
But AMA has something special up its sleeve that not every studio can boast of, and that is variety of experience.
“AMA’s DNA is innovation,” asserts Campion. “We always love to try new platforms and bring our games to the customer whatever device they have in their hand or in front of their eyes. For instance, we have games on Bada, Windows Phone 7 and even on Tizen.”
A sister company of Gameloft and Ubisoft, and co-founded in 2004 by a range of individuals including Ubisoft’s Guillimot brothers, AMA has also worked on Vita, Kinect, smart TV and numerous other mobile OS projects.
“But coming back to Glass, we are very lucky to have a close relationship with Google,” continues Campion.
“On Android, we are the top developer since last November. On Google TV, we were in the first batch of developers to deliver games on this new platform. So when, at Google I/O 2012, we were offered the opportunity to enter the Glass Explorer programme. Well, we didn’t hesitate too long.”
The Glass Explorer early adopter initiative saw both developers and carefully selected consumers given the chance to take part in testing of the hardware, as long as they could commit to a trip to one of three US cities for the device’s pre-release launch, and stump up $1,500. AMA made it through the process.
BUILT TO GLASS
Through making Escape, AMA has increased not just its interest, but investment in wearable technology, which has a surprisingly long history.
The history of head-mounted displays that augment reality stretches back well over 30 years. Meanwhile, productised optical head-mounted displays like the Glass, defined by sporting a display that the wearer can see through or view the reflection of projected images in, have been available since the 1990s. And a whole plethora of high-tech adornments and wrist-mounted computers have long existed, starting with ring-abacuses in China’s Qing Dynasty in the 1600s. And now AMA is willing to bet that history will continue.
“AMA believes in wearables and, now that it is happening, we are more than excited to be part of this new frontier. Google Glass is a key element of it, but not the only one. Christian Guillemot our CEO, just decided to build up a fully wearable-dedicated development studio in Rennes, in Brittany,” reveals Campion. “So we are heavily investing and welcome any partner or games developer to join us.”
As well as looking for partners, AMA is also recruiting individuals across numerous fields from artists to designers. It’s a tempting proposal, and one that may have daring developers flocking to AMA’s door. What’s more, Campion is confident that the opportunity for making games for wearable tech is not the exclusive reserve of a few highly specialised studios.
Campion admits Google must make Glass a great deal more easy to purchase before it can be guaranteed success, and he is frank in asserting that, initially at least, games developers are best focusing on ‘mobile-like’ titles as the platform establishes itself.
But, based on the experience AMA have had making Escape, Campion has some encouraging advice for developers designing their first Glass game: “Think outside the box. Make it unique for Glass by choosing gameplay you were never able to do before.”
It may turn out that Google Glass is the precedent – and not the breakthrough product – for optical head-mounted displays that are embraced by the public. But there is one thing Campion and the AMA team seem sure of.
“I strongly believe in wearables,” concludes the head of production. “But I don’t know what will be Google’s final product, price or content, so there are still many question marks. But again, get ready for wearables.”
Will wearables really become a normal destination for the games today’s developers conceive? It’s hard to predict. But considering how commonplace wearable technology like the wristwatch is, consumers appear absolutely comfortable with the concept of carrying hardware on their bodies.
And it is those consumers that may one day be playing your games through technology like Glass. So, if AMA is to be believed, you would be wise to consider supporting the platform.