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How the Nintendo Amusement Park Works

Reality Check
An unpainted prototype Goomba
An unpainted prototype Goomba

The Nintendo Amusement Park is an example of physically-augmented reality. Physically-augmented reality is not the same as augmented reality (which usually means computer-augmented reality), but it does fall between actual reality and virtual reality.

Let's take a brief look at each to better understand physically-augmented reality:

  • Augmented reality (AR) In an augmented-reality system, computers are not used to recreate the real world. Instead, they add virtual information to a user's sensory perceptions. Most augmented-reality systems rely on "see-through" devices, such as goggles, that overlay graphics and text on the user's otherwise normal view of the environment. See How Augmented Reality Works for an in-depth look at this type of technology. Augmented-reality displays overlay computer-generated graphics and text onto the real world.
  • Physically-augmented reality Physically augmented reality uses objects, props and mechanical systems to transform the real world into a fantasy world. A theme park is a good example of physically-augmented reality, except the users in most theme parks are passive observers. In physically-augmented reality, users actively participate in the fantasy.
  • Virtual reality (VR) Virtual-reality systems, like augmented-reality ones, use computers. In virtual reality, however, computers replace the real world entirely. Jaron Lanier, VR's founding father, defined virtual reality as "a computer-generated, interactive, three-dimensional environment in which a person is immersed."

In the Nintendo Amusement Park, there is nothing digital, nothing projected and nothing virtual. Instead, reality is augmented using props and mechanical systems, and the player actually dresses up like the game's hero. This provides a unique user experience unlike anything a computer-augmented or virtual-reality system can provide.

"Super Mario Bros." isn't the first game to inspire the creation of a real-world, playable version. Dr. Adrian David Cheok and his team from the National University of Singapore's Mixed Reality Lab recently introduced "Human Pac-Man" at several IT and technology shows. In Human Pac-Man, players actually become one of the characters from the game -- one of the ghosts or Pac-Man himself -- and move about a real-world course, imitating the actions of the game. Unlike the Nintendo Amusement Park, "Human Pac-Man" requires players to wear special goggles and a backpack containing a laptop computer and GPS equipment. The computer overlays digital information onto what the viewer physically sees, while the GPS equipment keeps track of everyone's location. The result is augmented gaming, where players move through a real-world course that represents the Pac-Man maze. As they navigate the course, they see glowing 3D power points through their goggles and interact with other players by tapping sensors installed in each backpack.

Another concept is the Site-specific System, or SSS. Conceived by the PlayStation Portable Design Team, an SSS imagines physical structures built in a real-world environment where PSP players convene and play. As the players compete in the virtual world, the physical structures they sit in provide feedback that corresponds to the action in the game. For example, players competing in a racing game would sit in cubicles located on a platform high above a busy highway. As the race played out on the PSP screen, the cubicles would vibrate, tilt and bounce, while the noise from the traffic below provided the proper auditory backdrop. The real-world gamespace would complement and extend the virtual gamespace.

The creators of Nintendo Amusement Park are currently looking for collaborators, sponsors and investors to help them take their prototype to the next level. They hope to attract the attention of Disney or Nintendo, although this brings its own risks (the students are using the Nintendo name and its trademarked characters without permission). Even if Nintendo tells them to cease and desist, the students believe that haptic-winch technology and physically-augmented reality have applications far beyond "Super Mario Bros." In the future, players could visit a true physically-augmented amusement park, with acres of courses where they could immerse themselves in the worlds of their favorite video games.

In the meantime, if you would like to spend a few moments as everyone's favorite plumber, visit the Nintendo Amusement Park Web site. You can also sign up to take a ride in the prototype, currently housed in the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics in Brooklyn, New York.

For more information about the Nintendo Amusement Park or augmented gaming, check out the links on the next page.