Will smartwatches be the next big gaming platform?
Wearable technology is currently the subject on every tech enthusiast’s lips and, with the launch of the Apple Watch just a month away, interest in smartwatches is growing rapidly.
As well as acting as an extension to your smartphone – allowing you to see who is calling you, read text messages, or check upcoming appointments – it is thought that smartwatches will evolve to have many applications of their own.
Some of these will build on their ability to track the wearer's activity, including the number of steps they have taken and their heart rate, and use this data to assess the wearer's level of fitness and offer tips on how to improve.
Others will tap into transport networks, providing information to wearers on train times, platforms, and allowing them to pay for tickets via payment systems like Google Wallet or Apple Pay, by simply touching their watch to a payment terminal.
Some could even integrate with security systems, allowing wearers to gain access to buildings, or smart home networks, so that users can control the lighting and temperature as well as their TVs and sound systems from their wrist.
However, one of the killer applications for smartwatches will be gaming, according to John Hanke, founder of Niantic Labs, a Google startup lab which explores experimental mobile, social, and local applications.
"Gaming is always there. I’ve heard Steve Jobs initially thought that games were beneath his aspirations for the iPhone, but they ended being a huge driver of adoption," said Mr Hanke.
"I think games are going to be one of the things that encourages early adopters to go out and grab these new devices and actually use them and get comfortable with them. And then many other apps will grow out of that."
Mr Hanke has worked for Google ever since the search giant acquired his software development company Keyhole in 2004, at which point Keyhole's flagship product was renamed to Google Earth.
After Keyhole's acquisition, Mr Hanke spent several years as vice president of product management for Google's 'Geo' division – which encompasses Google Earth, Google Maps and StreetView – before founding Niantic Labs.
Niantic Labs is best known for Ingress, an augmented reality massively multiplayer online role playing game which encourages players to engage in adventures on foot and discover the world around them.
Mr Hanke first began working with wearable technology following the launch of Google Glass in 2013. Niantic Labs launched a version of its app Field Trip for Glass, which helped wearers to uncover hidden features of the world around them.
"I just felt there was a natural intersection in applications built around location and wearables, because location inherently has to do with being active, being out in the world, seeing things and doing things," said Mr Hanke.
"Even three years ago we felt like the world was ready to evolve from everybody walking down the street hunched over staring at their phone. We really felt like there had to be a better interface for human beings than that."
Having worked with the Explorer version of Google Glass (which was recently discontinued), Mr Hanke admitted that it had some limitations as a gaming platform. The price was prohibitively high for most people, so it never really established an installed user base.
There were also social drawbacks – people felt self-conscious about walking around in the street wearing the headset, and also about issuing voice commands in public. Battery life was also a challenge, according to Mr Hanke.
He was therefore delighted when a range of companies including Samsung, LG and Motorola started bringing out smartwatches – devices that according to Mr Hanke come at a good price point and are socially acceptable.
"As somebody who likes to build applications and invent new things, I think it’s going to be really successful," he said. "It’s conducive more to experiences that are pulling you into the world, rather than pulling you into the screen. That actually makes all the difference in the world."
Niantic has developed a version of Ingress for Android Wear that uses very simple input commands such as tap and swipe to allow players to capture "portals" – real-world landmarks, historic locations, public artwork, museums and local businesses that players compete to control.
Mr Hanke said that Ingress works particularly well on a smartwatch, because it allows players to keep their hands free, and pay more attention to the world around them.
"When people play Ingress, it’s a very social experience. It’s something that people go out in groups and do together, and then they go out and have a meal and have beers afterwards. It has that aspect to it that I don’t think video games have really had before," he said.
While he said that it was inevitable the developers would try to put more traditional mobile games, like Temple Run and Candy Crush Saga onto smartwatches, the real opportunity is in new types of games that blend discovery of spaces, movement, exploration and gamified playing.
In many cases, the reward of being outside, doing some physical activity and discovering new places is much more powerful and exhilirating than simply winning virtual points. Zombies Run!, for example, is a game that uses game mechanics to motivate runners.
Some smartwatches for kids, like the LeapBand from children's tablet maker LeapFrog, also tap into this idea, allowing wearers to earn points by participating in physical activities and challenges.
"We’re really excited about getting people outside and building experiences that let people discover new places in the world," he said.
Mr Hanke said that, as the sensors in smartwatches improve, the opportunity for developers to create augmented reality games for smartwatches continues to grow.
For example, the ability to measure biometric information and environmental conditions, together with better positioning technologies and cameras, could help to create experiences that go far beyond what is possible on smartphones today.
"It’s a very positive thing for the technology industry to have these wearable devices and to move their focus a bit from trying to connect people virtually to trying to connect people in the real world," he concluded.