If you haven’t noticed, Augmented Reality (AR) – the layering of virtual imagery on real world environments – has been creeping up on us for some time now. It seems inevitable that it will become mainstream, if not ubiquitous, in the next few years. However, beyond the yellow lines that appear on televised football fields and the head-up displays in airplanes and cars, it’s currently treated mainly as a marketing buzzword and a novelty that some brands are using to freshen up their advertising. For example, if you happen to be the lucky recipient of an interactive Home Depot gift card, you can use your webcam to see a variety of thrilling home improvement products appear in the palm of your hand on screen instead of that boring old card you’re actually holding.
Thankfully, some companies are coming up with AR products that are a little more interesting than virtual wire cutters. Parrot, a company best known for its hands-free carsets, intends to take gaming to the next level by encouraging the developer community to build mobile AR applications around a very cool quadricopter toy called the AR.Drone. The device, whose final version was introduced at E3, runs Linux and has two video cameras mounted on the front and bottom that use WiFi to feed an augmented video stream to your iPhone/iPod Touch app. Want your AR.Drone to battle with your friends’? The quadricopter has special AR markings that lets it get recognized by other copters, so AR.Drones in the same vicinity can interact with one another within apps (for example, by shooting laser beams at each other).
Here’s my rundown on the best and worst of the AR.Drone, which I hear was one of the more popular demos at E3 and will be available for $299 in September:
Parrot was smart to create an open source platform so that anyone can make AR.Drone apps. Developers are pretty excited about AR right now, and, from what Parrot tells us, about 500 have already taken the bait and downloaded the SDK. Judging by the demo I saw at CEA LineShow, it looks like they’ve done a great job with the accelerometer — the AR.Drone is intuitive to pilot and quick to respond. Also, the quadricopter itself is just so friggin’ awesome. It can fly at 5 meters/second and can stabilize itself in just about any situation, even when smacking into walls, your friends, gusts of wind, or other AR.Drones. The folks demoing it let me smack it myself a few times and it really did stabilize instantly. With that combination of sturdiness, speed, and responsiveness, head-to-head copter battles will surely be epic. Another neat feature of the quadricopter is that it will stop automatically, stabilize, and lower itself to the ground if you take a phone call while using an AR.Drone app, staying there until you’re finished with the call.
Currently, the AR.Drone can only detect other quadricopters within 16 feet of it and the range of flight is limited by WiFi to 164 feet. Also, Parrot claims that playing with a solo quadricopter can be just as entertaining as head-to-head battles or other multiplayer games, however I don’t see what the point of AR or the quadricopter itself is when there’s only one drone flying around with nothing in its environment to interact with. I suppose seeing it occasionally bang into your wall during gameplay has a certain appeal, but I don’t think that’s riveting enough for me to ever want to play with it on its own. Head-to-head quadricopter battles will surely be awesome, but they will also require you to convince your friends to spend $300 on one and lug the thing over to your house in order to play. Yes, you could buy two of them, but either way, you will need one iPhone or iPod Touch per AR.Drone, which alienates people like me who have neither. Parrot, build a web app!
A battery life of 12 minutes. No, seriously. If your copters die mid-battle, you have 90 suspenseful minutes of charge time ahead of you before you can continue. For reference, the source of all this trouble is a Lithium Polymer UL2054 battery.
The Bottom Line
The AR.Drone is an amazing concept with a lot of potential, but the current limitations and price tag are pretty daunting. It’s hard to justify shelling out $299 for a toy with the shortest battery life known to mankind, especially when it’s not half as much fun to play solo and requires an iPhone or iPod Touch to work. In the meantime, buy a couple for the office. Unlike Facebooking on the job, you’re forced to get back to work after 12 minutes of use, and with an hour and a half between charges, there’s still plenty of time left for productivity.