I just started playing Ingress, Google’s augmented reality game, yesterday. I’m hooked.
While the game itself is basically glorified Capture-the-Flag, and appeals to people roughly my age and a little younger because it is one more reason to bury your nose in your phone, there’s several interesting aspects to it. One, I noticed, has been the strange interactions I’ve quickly developed with people. When I see someone walking past me, nose similarly buried in smartphone, I automatically suspect them of playing Ingress. I try to covertly see what they’re doing on their phone, and see which team they’re on.
It is often very obvious when people are playing, though. I went out with a group of friends yesterday evening and took over an entire neighborhood for my team, and we were really obvious about it. The game requires that you get close to “portals” of “Exotic Matter (XM)” and do a few things: 1) hack them to get stuff you need, like resonators and bursters, 2) destroy the opposing team’s resonators with your bursters, and 3) use your resonators to take over portals. You use your phone’s GPS to figure out how close you are to portals, and that means you, as the player, fall victim to “GPS Drift,” ie when your GPS decides you’re standing in the middle of a set of train tracks a few blocks away, rather than on the sidewalk that you are otherwise clearly standing on. So you do this shuffle-dance – one step forward, reload phone, one more step forward, run half a block forward, turn around and go back a few steps, turn phone off and on again, look concerned/frustrated.
Because we were so obvious – as our phone batteries died, GPS Drift got worse – a couple of people came up and talked to us. One guy, cycling through the area on his way home, happened to be on our team and had upgraded some resonators we’d placed in a previous location (high-five, bro!). Another guy, clearly on the opposing team, muttered the derogatory term for our side under his breath, with a grin splashed across his face.
As I am a theatre nerd, I found all of this very theatrical.
Yes, Ingress is a game, and that is the main point. And Ingress does not (currently) do anything fancy to literally augment reality, which programs like Aurasma do. It instead uses Google Maps and your Android phone’s GPS to figure out where you are and show you, on the map, portals in your area and you can then decide to use them however you wish.
Site-specific and interactive theatre have been around for awhile, and one could go deep into the depths of nerddom and argue that theatre has always augmented reality in some way. BUT, not like this, specifically. Augmented reality has a lot of potential for live performance, giving the world a new hue as you sift through layers of information.
Some brave artists have reached out into augmented reality territory already:
I am not crazy about these early attempts, however, because they seem more like art installations than performance pieces. But visually, it gets a point across about the possibilities for live theatre, for showing the audience information with, basically, a new kind of set design.
It is an interesting proposition to use augmented reality programs for a kind of interactive theatre. I imagine a play that works with augmented reality would feel like a scavenger hunt, or a choose-your-own-adventure, or possibly an RPG. But, in theory, you could combine social media (Facebook and Twitter, particularly), or simple text messages, to relay information from characters to the audience to guide them. They could meet actors in person in certain locations and gather information to further the story. Audience reaction would, most likely, be all over the place – some people would never, ever break the fourth wall, while some people would heartily interact with the show. It would take a strong cast to deal with potentially rowdy audience members.
My first and most natural inclination was to take a classic piece and chop it up, just to get the idea out into the world (“Sleep No More,” though a wonderful immersive experience I’m sure, used “MacBeth” rather than original material). But, being a big fan of locally-created and -produced work, I’d rather get a playwright/group of playwrights, and possibly some Android programmers, together and hash out what can be done. What plot would benefit from this kind of telling? (“Hamlet” would not, let’s be honest). Would it be necessary to develop a program to go with the show, or could we just cobble something together with existing programs, like Facebook, that people probably already have on their smartphones? How would you deal with cross-compatibility with iPhones and Androids? (Ingress doesn’t – it is Android-only).
I’m interested to see where Ingress goes, and where augmented reality goes because such a large company has released such a popular game. And I’m interested to see how theatre picks up better use of social media to tell a play’s story, rather than just using it for advertising. And I will research the possibilities more, because I think a barrage of augmented reality information as part of a site-specific interactive play would be aaaaaaaaaaaawesooooooooooooooooome.