Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Not Just Fun and Games Why We Should all Pay Attention to the Game Industry

Design

This past Spring I went to South by Southwest to check out all the workshops and discussions on UX/UI trends. I had never been to Austin and was about 3 months into starting a new job. I was stoked. Not surprisingly, I didn’t end up going to much of anything UX/UI related. Instead, I spent entirely way too much time at the Gaming Conference playing video games and drinking free beer. They sent me unsupervised.

Games require an extreme amount of intuitive interactions. So naturally, I figured I’d waltz into the gaming conference, discover some mind blowing new UI interface to wow my team with and pawn it off as my own. Instead, I stood stunned watching all these grown men and women blindly flailing their arms around while wearing Oculus Rift headsets.

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If it wasn’t Oculus Rift, it was panels about the future of augmented gaming. What in God’s name had happened? I walked away from the gaming industry for five minutes and they were already strapping kids into the Matrix. Was I the only one still healing from the crushing disappointments of VR back in the 90’s?

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Ugh.

Somehow virtual reality had made a comeback and augmented reality looked shockingly good. Judging by the amount of people smiling, I started to feel more optimistic. I began to think that if these guys can pull this off, this could prove groundbreaking.

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Dude. No one cares about video games. Why should we?

The gaming industry is incredible for many reasons, but it’s one of the few that has the ability to spawn new technology that influences every other industry across the globe. We’re talking about education, social tools, the military, architecture, and even healthcare. All the tools and talent to create visual effects, GPS, and even wearables came from game tools, game engines or game programmers. It’s time to stop hatin’.

Take the Kinect for instance. While a mediocre (at best) gaming tool, that same technology is being used for sexual assault response training and disaster relief projects. Remember the Wii Fit and it’s adorable attempt to make us get off the couch? It wasn’t just a coincidence that fitness wearables started popping up all over the market a few years later. Even the “new” haptic response technology we see in Smart Watches are just glorified rumble packs. The sounds and sensations used to trigger people’s awareness of a notification or messages are all rooted in what gamers have been using for ages. What most people don’t realize is that games influence technology and technology influences games. Some of the most interesting things people do with game technology will be outside the scope of games altogether. So as I sat watching a young child wearing an Oculus Rift headset smile brightly while he shot some imaginary terrorist, I contemplated where technology was going.

Why are their two different types of “realities”? What’s the difference?

The best way to describe the difference between AR and VR is to describe one as an overlay and the other as sensory. Augmented reality works with computer vision (aka your camera) to overlay digital graphics on top of the real world. Add in GPS, and you’ve got something that’s legitimately cool.

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While this makes going outside to play games infinitely more interesting, it gets better once that same technology can project outward – like holograms! This enables you to play Madden on your living room table while still keeping the TV open for live sports (which I would absolutely do). The possibilities are endless.

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Virtual Reality on the other hand, is complete sensory immersion. You’re strapped into a contained digital experience. Think Tron, the Matrix or the highly underrated film, Gamer. With a little headgear, you’d be surprised at how locked in your senses become to a digital experience. The rest of your body physically reacts to sounds and sensations based on what your brain is interpreting.

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You may have heard of the Oculus Rift, which is currently leading the charge for virtual reality. What’s interesting is that they’ve opened the platform to other industries and competitors. Not only does this raise the bar to create better VR, but it also creates more content and ideas. Everyone wins. The question is, where are the other industries taking it?

What does this have to do with my job?

Augmented reality is going to be fun because for the most part it’s already available. We have so much access to tech in our hands that we don’t take advantage of half of it. Marketing companies will flock to augmented reality like they’re the new QR code. Brands will be able to push their products in-store and offer special “augmented deals.” Push notifications can bother us now more than ever with things like coffee promotions every time I pass all 8 Starbucks on my way to work. Eventually I’ll be able to pull up any random stranger’s Facebook profile just to see if he enjoys murder mysteries because I can and I will. And sports events will be able to project live fantasy points as you watch your player run into the end zone. SO MANY GOOD THINGS!

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Virtual reality has a bit further to go but the fact that Facebook just bought Oculus Rift in order to create a “personal computer” suggests that it’ll go far beyond games. Their goal is to allow you to connect with your friends in parallel worlds no matter where you are. You would be able to attend concerts, family functions, and parties with friends while actually being strapped to your recliner in the same sweatpants you woke up in. In fact, YouTube recently released 360º video compatibility in hope that one day you can enter that video of the Coliseum you were streaming and feel like you were actually there. This is no joke. We will never have to leave our homes again. The pants industry will plummet and no one will miss it. No one.

Lets make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The real kicker here is combining the two. Lets say, your car breaks down. You pull up your mechanic app and using AR, it identifies the problem and overlays an interface onto your car that lists instructions for you to follow and fix the issue. But you’re too lazy to read words, so you call a mechanic. After a quick 3D scan of your environment, the mechanic taps into the virtual replica of your scenario, checks your car, identifies the problem and actually guides you through the process of fixing your engine. You exchange some virtual high fives and then he asks you to give him 5 stars on Yelp. You say you will, but you won’t.

The implications of something like this are impressive. Just imagine how augmented and virtual reality will change health tracking or training experiences for nurses and doctors. We could all be like Tony Stark just clicking away at important schematics on holograms and going to Virtual Italy to have wine with our friends. If we thought people were attached to their phones now, what will happen when we embrace AR and VR?

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So then, is Armageddon nigh?

The most obvious take away from this besides the end of humanity, is that our jobs as digital designers are about to get crazy. We’re not just designing UI for web and mobile anymore. We’ll need to start thinking in 4D spaces and curating ideas on how we can take advantage of these technologies. Developers will need to familiarize themselves with AR and VR landscapes and businesses may want to get their virtual faces on to drive new business. Lawyers and attorneys will have a whole new mess of legal and privacy issues to deal with. And people will go into an uproar over all the new equipment upgrades Apple will force us to buy because VR World is not backwards compatible with their 30-pin cable. It’ll be mayhem. As a designer, I get equal parts excited and terrified over it. But if we embrace it together, we can build amazing things. Bring on the future.