Augmented Reality Game Fueled By Advanced Robot Mapping Technology – SLAM Goes Mobile!

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Ball Invasion
Ball Invasion, the augmented reality game that is actually less cool than the technology behind it.

One of the most powerful tools in the robot software arsenal just made it’s way into a video game. SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) lets a computer explore an area, know where it is, and how to return home even if it’s never seen that space before. Like a perfect sense of direction coupled with a photographic memory. It’s an incredibly handy technique, and Stockholm’s 13th Lab is using it to play with their balls. Ball Invasion is an augmented reality game for the iPad2 that transforms your environment into a shooting range with bouncy, colorful, virtual balls. Using SLAM, Ball Invasion doesn’t need any markers or special cards to play, you just point your iPad2 at the world and start to shoot the virtual images that appear. Check the game out in the video below. Ball Invasion’s simple nature hides some amazing potential. 13th Lab’s cheap approach to SLAM could give every mobile device the ability to map and understand the world around them with sub-centimeter precision.

Here’s 13th Lab’s Ball Invasion augmented reality video game for the iPad2,which hit #4 on the Apple App store in Sweden. You shoot some virtual balls at other floating virtual balls and watch them explode and you can even bounce your shooting balls off walls or other harder balls…you know, it’s just a whole ball thing I don’t really want to explain anymore. The bottom line: this game is a little sh*tty but the technology behind it is awesome. Unlike many augmented reality games, Ball Invasion doesn’t need any markers, all it uses is the iPad2 camera and some heavy processing to see all the surfaces around you and place its virtual objects correctly. Trust me, that’s much more impressive than it sounds, and like a billion times more impressive than it looks:

Personally I might have stayed with 13th Lab’s stripped down demo of their SLAM tech for iPad2, seen in the following video. Though, honestly, even this doesn’t really explain much about why SLAM on a portable device is so amazing:

Look, I want to make it clear: Ball Invasion is only remarkable because of the incredible mapping technology that goes on in the background, hidden from the user. I know that to most of us, SLAM doesn’t mean much, but to a robot or computer, it’s like owning a brain that will never get lost. SLAM is a method to not only locate a computer/sensor in space, but track the position of a sensor as it moves through that space. SLAM is what allows for NASA robots to explore Mars – it gives a computer a chance to understand alien terrain without ever having seen it before! It’s a highly valued approach to mapping, and while we’ve seen it in research robots and even a few commercial robots, this is the first time I’ve seen it on an iPad app. True, it requires so much processing power that it will only run on the iPad2 (thanks dual core A5 CPU!), but it’s a big step towards moving this technology into portable devices anyone can buy.

Ball vision
Here's the sort of feature extraction that 13th Lab is creating for mobile devices. This is the demo they should have stuck with. Call it Ball Vision or something...

In a very smart move, 13th Lab is actively soliciting third party developers to take the SLAM code behind their video game in new directions. If they can attract enough developers with their beta,the potential for development here is huge. Augmented reality games are neat, but I don’t think that’s where the money is. Imagine if your tablet computer camera could take a video of a room and then generate a 3D wire mesh map of it. Maybe it could stitch together the images so you generate a flawless video representation of the room as well. OR, let’s think about robotics. We’ve already seen how the Kinect 3D sensor, priced around $150, is changing the way researchers build and test robots. What happens when we give them a SLAM app that only costs $2, and that can run on a $500 tablet? I’m not a developer, I’m not sure what the best applications for cheap SLAM will be, but I do know that when you give a bunch of engineers a cheap new toy, they tend to come up with some pretty cool ways to use it.

As computer processing gets cheaper, smaller, and more mobile we’re going to see the list of devices capable of running 13th Lab’s SLAM app explode. At the same time, the resolution of mobile cameras is going to increase as well. That means we’re not only going to have SLAM on all our smart phones, we’re going to be giving the tiny computers inside the ability to understand the smallest details of the world around. As 13th Lab continues to develop the feature extraction and other techniques of their computer vision, sub-centimeter precision is not an unrealistic expectation. Your phone will be able to position it (and you) in space to an absurd degree, especially when you leverage the power of GPS and 3D (stereographic) cameras. What happens when we add in lifelogging video glasses that hook up to our phones and never stop recording…AH! My brain has just combusted from contemplating the possibilities.

Don’t let 13th Lab’s ridiculous augmented reality game fool you. This is some serious tech, with some serious applications that will ultimately make all of our portable devices that much more powerful. I mean, you can only add so many tools to the smart phone utility belt before you just have to admit you’ve created iBatman. Whether they use it for the next generation of robots, or find a killer application in mobile mapping, affordable portable SLAM is finally here. And that, my friends, is the kind of technology that is well worth taking some balls for.

[image and video credits: 13th Lab]
[source: 13th Lab]