NASA tech lifts augmented-reality shooter

Sophisticated robot vision tech puts iPad augmented-reality shooter Ball Invasion in touch with its surroundings.

Eric Smalley
Crave freelancer Eric Smalley has written about technology for more than two decades. His freelance credits include Discover, Scientific American, and Wired News. He edits Technology Research News, where he gets to preview the cool technology we'll all be using 10 years from now. Eric is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CBS Interactive. E-mail Eric.
Eric Smalley
2 min read
Ball Invasion augmented reality iPad game
Sophisticated robot tech puts this augmented-reality shooter in touch with its surroundings. Video screenshot by Eric Smalley/CNET

Augmented reality, which brings together the physical and digital worlds, holds much promise for gaming. So why do most augmented-reality games suck? Here's the key: Most aren't true augmented reality. They're little more than animations overlaid on a video feed.

Enter Ball Invasion, a game from Swedish software developer 13th Lab. The iPad 2 game is a leap forward. It's also simple: Shoot a stream of round black bullets at the colorful balls that emerge on your screen. Unlike other augmented-reality games, however, you can bounce your animated bullets off the real walls around you. Check out the video below.

Here's what goes on under the hood. Ball Invasion uses Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) to build and continuously update a 3D digital representation of the physical space in the iPad camera's field of view. This is the technology many robots, including NASA planetary rovers, use to get a sense of where they are.

Augmented-reality apps use GPS to incorporate your location, video to incorporate the scene around you, and/or object recognition to incorporate elements of the scene, like doorways. Paranormal Activity: Sanctuary, for example, uses GPS to scatter portals to the underworld around your town, and AC 310 uses object recognition to turn dollar bills into urban battlefields.

What's missing from these systems, however, is a full map of the space around you. SLAM extrapolates this information from the video feed.

SLAM could be useful in other augmented-reality applications, by, for example, improving the way some apps overlay information on the camera's field of view. Maybe someone will come up with an app that lets you take pictures of furniture and artwork, and gives you a sense of how they'll look in your living room.

Ball Invasion highlights converging trends: sophisticated software becoming more efficient and mobile devices becoming more powerful. Which other high-end aerospace and military technical wonders would you like to see put to use entertaining you on your morning commute?

(Via GigaOm)