South By Southwest Interactive: The Dawn of Location-Based Gaming

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It’s deceptively easy to get caught up in the buzz of South By Southwest Interactive; to get ahead of yourself and think that the future is now. Location-based services (LBS) are the talk of sxsw 2011, and yet I think for the vast majority of web users, LBS are best known for being the Foursquare spam in your Facebook feed.

Yet a good number of designers and developers and looking at how to take LBS to the next level – to layer location atop TV shows, games or streaming music to create richer media experiences.

I’ll admit: I’m not the easiest to convince on this topic. I fall in the camp of people who thinks it’s rather rude to be sitting on your cell phone at the dinner table – that it’s important to have times where you break free of the web. And LBS run counter to that, suggesting that wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, your experience at those coordinates could be richer if you were just accessing it all through an app.  (More at Techland: The 10 best iPhone Camera Apps)

But I saw two things at South By Southwest that piqued my interest. The first is the Broadcastr iphone application – which will use both user recommendations and location to create an audio playlist that is relevant for a given zip code. Between local music and area-specific podcasts, it’s an app with potential.

On Saturday morning, I also attended the panel “Beyond Check-Ins: Location Based Game Design,” featuring Zach Saul and John-Paul Walton, the co-founders of Dokogeo. It’s a startup that has already completed two location-based games – the first baby steps that opened my eyes to the potential of location-based experiences.

The company’s first game seems simple enough: Seek ‘n Spell, touted as the first real-time location-based game for both iPhones and Androids. The concept couldn’t be simpler: Letters are spread out over a predefined space, and you must use your phone and move to the correct location to collect the letters and spell a word. The only way to win the game is to correlate the letter locations with real-world geography, and physically move from one space to another.

Now Seek ‘n Spell is impressive less for the gameplay than the technology involved. But Dokobots, on the other hand, suggests something far more ambitious. In this, the company’s second game, cute little robots are spread out around the globe. You track down their physical location, gather them up, take them around with you – where you can workshop them into photos (see the photo at the top of this page) – and then eventually send them on their away, for another gamer to discover. It’s kind of like the gnomes from Amelie, traveling the world via cell photo.

When you pick up a robot, you have access to their past adventures. And you can opt at any time to drop the robot back onto the map, or even send them flying around the globe – a virtual pen pal of sorts, which can then be picked up by gamers in Hong Kong or London.

Part pet rock, part gnome, part scavenger hunt, what intrigued me most in Saturday’s discussion was the broader vision expressed by Saul and Walton. What if you could take entire virtual universes – think Tolkien, think World of Warcraft – and lay them down atop the world’s geography? How far could you take this notion of location-based augmented reality? How much more magical could daily life become? Just imagine different teams of gamers descending on Central Park, all looking at their mobile devices to see where the swords and dragons are hiding. Is this the dawn of a sprawling, sophisticated virtual reality existing side by side with the real world?

Yes, I know I’m talking about a silly robot iPhone game. And the sophistication gap, between Dokobots and WoW is still vast. But if I’m being honest, these Dokogeo guys had converted me by the end of the panel. I went in thinking that almost any LBS scheme must be irksome, and came out with an eyebrow raised, intrigued by a most unexpected fusion of technology and geography. At South By Southwest, anything is possible.