Guns, grenades and GPS: Recoil is aiming to bring back laser tag

Michael Madsen is the gravely-voiced spokesman for this augmented reality toy.

Sean Hollister
Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
3 min read

I'm standing in an ordinary parking lot in San Francisco's Mission Bay district, holding a giant plastic pistol with both hands.

When I pull the trigger, there's no "pew pew" sound, no foam darts or water blasts to annoy people around me. As far as pedestrians are concerned, I'm just playing make-believe.

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Phone, meet blaster.

Josh Miller/CNET

But when I pop my phone into the gun's built-in mount and plug in a pair of headphones, suddenly I can hear the battle. There's gunfire all around. Enemy players to attack. Teammates to assist. Objectives to defend. My phone tells me when I've successfully taken down enemy players. 

And then it tells me I'm dead.

It's a little like playing Call of Duty in real life. Or, at least, a far more sophisticated version of the laser tag I used to play as a kid. 

The augmented reality experience I just described is called Recoil, from drone maker Skyrocket, and it's coming August 15 to most major retailers in the United States. For $130, you get a starter kit with two pistols and a base station -- a miniature Wi-Fi router which can keep track of up to 16 players at a time. 

The idea is that you can create a laser tag arena just about anywhere, as long as you can convince enough people to play. Just plop down the base station, sync up the phones and guns, and a dedicated Android or iOS app handles the rest.

Up close with Skyrocket's Recoil augmented reality blasters

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While the basic technology is the same as it was in the '80s -- players shoot invisible beams of infrared light at foes -- it's way more sophisticated than you might expect. Using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, plus the GPS and inertial sensors of your phone, every player's position and heading are tracked in real time. The infrared data packets have unique identifiers, so you can't easily fool them with a TV remote (you silly cheat).

Because the app knows where you are, there's some neat gameplay around airstrikes and land mines, too -- if one player calls in an airstrike, their target has to run away or wind up dead. 

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I prefer the rifle -- but it costs an additional $80.

Josh Miller/CNET

Each hefty, solid blaster has three hit detectors, on the front and sides, and they each fire two infrared beams: one wide-angle, short-range cone, and an additional long-range emitter that (the company claims) is accurate out to 300 feet. Each has a push-to-talk button for integrated voice chat as well. 

Then there's the titular recoil: It's a linear actuator that smacks into the back of the blaster to give you that "rat-a-tat-a-tat" feeling. It's not super powerful, but it's a great way to tell how fast you're burning ammo. The company says the blasters should run for around a couple hundred hours on a set of four AA batteries.

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You can also buy "grenades."

Josh Miller/CNET

Put it all together, and you've got something pretty fun! I had a blast running around that parking lot, picking off foes with rapid fire bursts from my trusty rifle, and calling in the occasional airstrike. The app solves a lot of the issues of '90s toy-grade laser tag sets. It can keep score for you and tell you what to do when you get hit -- in this case, the app walks you back to respawn. 

If it works out, developer Skyrocket hopes to add additional game modes and some new weapons -- perhaps a sniper rifle or shotgun.

Still, I gotta admit the prototypes I tried needed some work. While the company boasts that you can hear where shots are coming from thanks to virtual surround sound, it just sounded like a jumble of gunfire to me. We had trouble keeping the prototype guns connected, too. The $15 grenades, which fire short-range infrared beams in every direction, weren't ready for me to try at all, and the voice chat was a little garbled. 

And yes, there's still nothing to keep cheaters from just covering all three sensors with a hand while they gun you down. Perhaps that's too much to hope for. 

At $50 per pistol or $80 per rifle, it's definitely on the pricey side of the toy blaster market, so it might not be easy to convince a bunch of friends to play. Still, there are $100 Nerf guns now. And Skyrocket's attempting to win over players by letting friends play medic even if they don't have a gun. They just need to download the app.

I'm game if you are.

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