Google Glass, gaming and the future of wearables

Indie developers are leading the charge on for wearable tech you can play. Here’s what to expect.
Google Glass, gaming and the future of wearables
Google Glass, gaming and the future of wearables © Mike Jennings
By Mike Jennings

Google is one of the world’s most powerful and innovative technology companies, so it’s no surprise that it’s among the first out of the starting blocks when it comes to making wearable technology that you can actually use – and the Glass headset has made plenty of waves despite its short lifespan, high price and exclusivity.

Glass can already be used for taking pictures, checking the latest news and communicating with friends, and it’s now dipping its toes into the gaming world. Is Glass going to replace your PlayStation, work alongside your Xbox – or barely work at all?

The Glass situation

Glass is one of the most high-profile wearable devices that’s made it to market, but it’s currently the preserve of the few: for most of its short life Glass headsets have only been available for people who registered for Google’s “Explorer” programme while it was still open to applications. Even if you were accepted, you’d still have to pay $1,500 – before tax.

Thankfully, it’s just become a little easy to get going with Glass, as Google has put the headsets on general sale in the US for $1,500 (it may be possible to import it, but you’ll have to ship it to a US address first). That’s after an initial 24-hour sale period saw the hardware sell out – so if you’re keen on buying a Glass, invest quickly.

Google’s open sales policy will increase the number of people using Glass headsets, but the number of people currently using the hardware is still tiny compared to smartphones and even other wearable devices like Samsung’s watches – Google sold just 8,000 headsets in 2013. Despite the high price and low user numbers, intrepid game developers are still trying to make waves on this exciting new format.

Right now, many of the apps available on Glass aren’t for gaming. Many are for taking and sharing photos and videos – unsurprising, given Glass’s built-in camera – and others handle Twitter, Facebook, other social networks and breaking news. Many more apps are merely simple proofs of various concepts.

© Google

Glass isn’t just useful for this kind of software, though – it’s got gaming potential, too. Google reckons it’s got so much gaming potential, in fact, that it’s released its own prototype apps to demonstrate what’s already possible on this new platform. They’re simple but effective: Tennis uses your head as a racket, another game simulates balancing a pile of books on your head, and others mimic clay pigeon shooting, Fruit Ninja-style shape splitting and matching coloured shapes.

Third-party developers have already gone further than these simple diversions. Games available right now include Mind Pirate’s and Little Guy Games’ Little Bandits, which is a two-player duelling game with cute cartoon graphics, and slick recreations of Blackjack and Frogger. This will undoubtedly lead to more exciting, innovative games – perhaps an augmented reality duelling title where players hunt each other throughout real cities, or an athletics title that turns a 400m sprint into a futuristic Tron-style bike race. Either way, they’ll be easier to play anywhere than Oculus Rift games.

© Little Guy Games/ideaBOOST/Mind Pirate Production Lab

Glass pioneers

Mind Pirate is one of the most exciting companies currently working in wearable technology. It’s already raised more than $2.5m in funding for its new projects, and one of its flagship titles, Global Food Fight, was the first game to be released simultaneously on Google Glass and iOS when it launched in March.

CEO Shawn Hardin described to us why Mind Pirate is betting the farm on Glass and other wearables, saying that wearables are “differentiated by their sensor-powered context and omnipresence”, and that Glass can “push the boundaries of app development”. The numbers back up Mind Pirate’s excitement, too: Hardin reckons that “over the next three and a half years 160 million wearables” are expected to be sold, and there are big advantages to leading the way.

Mind Pirate isn’t just looking to innovate on Glass, either. Hardin explains that the firm’s Callisto platform “is designed to take advantage of glasses, smartwatches and the symbiotic smartphones” without having to make drastic changes to the code behind the game, which makes for easy porting. Global Food Fight may be built to run on Google Glass and iOS, but it’ll work on smartwatches too.

© Smokebomb Entertainment/ideaBOOST/Mind Pirate Production Lab

Other developers – who perhaps didn’t expect to make waves on Glass – have found themselves at the forefront. Irina Tsyganok, a final year computing student from the University of Surrey, is one of the first British-based developers to release an app for Glass. Her software, TinyRhymes, is a game featuring nursery rhymes that’s designed to appeal to her young daughter.

© Sean McCracken

Another enterprising developer, Sean McCracken, has made a game called Psyclops. It’s a hybrid of Space Invaders and Missile Command, and works by using Glass to find augmented reality enemies – looking at them locks a reticule, and then shoots them down. It’s the first such title that was made and released for Glass, and it happened because McCracken won a Google contest to get early access to the hardware.

A pair of developers from American universities meanwhile have developed a game called Swarm, which is described as the first “Massively Multiplayer Online Augmented Reality Simulation”, or MMOARS. One of the developers, Daniel Estrada, told The Telegraph in the UK that he’s not just thinking about games, explaining that “a bit part of the challenge is helping people imagine how [Glass] will impact their daily lives”. Swarm, he says, is “a framework for engaging crowds as they navigate shared public spaces” – a neat approach that may help people get over the privacy issues that surround Glass.

© Chaotic Good/Interdisciplined

Other indie developers without access to the hardware still salivate at the thought of working with Glass. Noble Kale, a developer who’s previously made adventure games and platformers, is “enticed” by the prospect of working with Glass, but reckons that games would “need to do something different” – a daunting challenge when many developers tend to say “’what traditional things can we do’ when presented with a new platform”.

Big studios

The work done by small companies like Mind Pirate and other independent developers is undoubtedly exciting, but the small number of Glass headsets in the market mean that AAA developers and publishers are sometimes reticent.

Ubisoft, for instance, thought about including Glass in Watch Dogs, but ultimately didn’t pull the trigger: the game’s supposed to reflect the state of technology right now, but creative director Jonathan Morin told the Official Xbox Magazine that, while Glass is “cool”, it’s “not implemented in society yet” – which means it can’t be included in good faith.

Spellista © Glu Mobile

Other companies are more excited. Glu Mobile has found success by porting console games to mobile and making its own, including Diner Dash, and its CEO Niccolo de Masi is more enthused about Glass. He told VentureBeat that “every five or 10 years something revolutionary comes along…[Glass] could be one of those moments”, and said that “the next seven years could well be a wearable wave” and “a new paradigm for interactivity and games”. Glu has even released one Glass title, Spelltista, which is based around word puzzles and was developed during a hackathon in San Francisco towards the end of 2013.

Other huge companies are skipping out on Glass to work on their own hardware. Microsoft is allegedly building a set of 4G-enabled glasses that could work with future Xbox and Kinect games, and Sony is determined not to be left behind when it comes to Glass-style wearables. The PlayStation manufacturer filed patents concerning its own eyepiece, and that’s since become Project Morpheus – a device that will work with the Move controller and the PlayStation’s camera. It’s gratifying to see actual hardware, albeit on stage at trade shows, although Sony hasn’t yet detailed a release date or price.

Project Morpheus
Project Morpheus © Sony

Google itself is slowly bringing Glass to life, too. We’ve already mentioned that Google has just made Glass available to the general public, and a proper app store is on the way later in 2014 – a vast improvement over the current method, which involves manually transferring and installing files on the headset.

It’s likely working on making games a big part of that store, as they are on Google Play for Android phones and tablets today. Google has hired Noah Falstein, who previously worked at DreamWorks and LucasArts, to be its Chief Game Designer, and it’s just made another big appointment – former Mattel and Gap executive Ivy Ross has joined as the project’s lead, replacing Babak Parviz.

Irina Tsyganok
Irina Tsyganok © Irina Tsyganok

The Glass ceiling?

Glass is an exciting new platform, but developers already working with Google’s wearable have noticed a litany of problems.

Tsyganok, who made TinyRhymes, isn’t positive about the future of Glass as a gaming device. “I couldn’t agree more with Google’s definition of Glass as ‘there when you need it and out of the way when you don’t’”, she explains, but says that “use is constrained by the structure of the device”: the screen is above the user’s line of sight, and looking up to play games is “not natural and uncomfortable for extended periods of time” and would “fail to provide a good user experience”.

That’s not the only problem she sees with this technology. Given how so many mobile games are played during commutes, “there’s no way of playing on Glass discreetly”, and it’s possible that certain interactions are “likely to raise concerns related to confidentiality”. That’s something that Tsyganok has already experienced, as she’s been confronted by someone who “accused me of recording her while I was testing my app in a coffee shop”.

Indie developer Noble Kale shares these concerns. She reckons that “social pressure against Glass is the main reason it won’t be in [wider] use for a while”, and that until “augmented reality technology is seen as acceptable” it won’t achieve mainstream acceptance. Right now, she says, there’s no “reason to have Glass beyond curiosity”, and “until these points are handled, it’s a dead platform for gaming”.

Google Glass
Google Glass © Google

Tsyganok also mentioned battery life, saying that “Glass is currently very poor”, and that “30 minutes of uninterrupted gameplay is likely to drain the battery completely”.

Even Mind Pirate, which bases its business plan around wearables, has reservations. CEO Shawn Hardin says that “the potential of wearables will only be realised through thoughtful integration of hardware and software” – but, right now, “much of the mature infrastructure of the mobile arena” is missing in the world of wearables. The “myriad of unique sensor and hardware configurations atop increasingly diverse operating systems” makes it particularly difficult for developers to get started.

These reasons mean that Glass is caught in a tricky Catch-22 situation, according to Hardin. “A compelling app ecosystem has proved elusive”, Hardin says, but “no single wearable [so far] drives enough scale or monetisation to deliver sufficient return on investment”.

Through the looking Glass?

The future for gaming on Glass – and other wearables – is undeniably murky. Many indie developers are keen on the platform, and they’re the ones who are doing the innovating right now – but the high entry cost, dearth of users and lack of a proper app distribution system will hamper these plans, and stop many other developers from taking the plunge.

Google Glass
Google Glass © Google

Major games developers and publishers, too, aren’t completely sold on Glass. The lack of user numbers means it’s not cost-effective right now, and firms that make their own hardware – including Microsoft and Sony – will surely prefer to develop their own devices rather than rely on Google.

Glass has its issues, then, but Google’s own efforts – and those of indie developers and other companies excited by this new technology – are pushing the project forward. Mind Pirate’s Shawn Hardin says that “Glass isn’t the be-all and end-all of smart glasses, it’s just the beginning”, and he’s right – wearables are new and exciting.

No-one can be sure of the future for Glass and its ilk, but we’re certain that gaming will be a big part of this new technology, just like it’s propelled the smartphone to the forefront of the tech world – and we’re certain that the view will eventually become crystal clear, too.

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