I remember watching the movie Strange Days when I was younger and being struck by how cool it seemed. If you’re not familiar with the movie, Ralph Fiennes (who I remember as Jeff Bridges) is a former cop who deals in bootlegged discs with recorded memories. Users put on a helmet, a lot like the VR machines from those days, and experience a whole new reality. It was basically a movie about how virtual reality could screw up your existing reality and blur the lines between the two, generally making you crazy and ruining your life.
The movie seems loosely prophetic now, when companies like Google are dabbling in augmented and mediated reality. The concepts are similar to Strange Days but not nearly as dark and not necessitating nearly as cool a helmet to experience them.
One such example is an app I downloaded recently called “Zombies, Run!” It is an exceptionally cool app that mixes running and story telling in an interactive way. Instead of telling zombies to run as the syntax of the name suggests you are part of a post-apocalyptic zombie story that revolves around running in the real world. As Runner 5 your job is to help Able Township grow by scavenging for supplies and going on missions. You gradually learn about your world through radio messages and interactions with characters in the game.
The execution is pretty simple. Strap your iPhone to your arm, pick an iTunes playlist, start your mission and hit the streets. I decided to test the app at 11pm, when it was sufficiently dark and the streets were empty. Setting the mood in this way proved to be the best way to experience the app.
I set out for a 5-mile run and was immediately immersed in the story. I was riding on a helicopter into Able Township, hearing the rotor and crack of the radio as the pilot communicated with Able. Things very quickly went awry (as they often do in an apocalyptic world) and I found myself on the ground. I heard the moan of zombies and a sensor indicated that they were closing on me. I had to sprint to get away from the pack. After about a minute the moaning subsided and I was able to evade the pack. Just then the app told me that I had picked up a pack of batteries and a box of ammunition. I was learning about my role as it was unfolding…as I was running.
I received a message from the radio operator at Able telling me to head toward the town. He was guiding me away from zombie hordes and I occasionally had to sprint to evade them. If I wasn’t fast enough the zombies stripped me of my supplies. I eventually completed the mission and ended up at Able Township, where I learned more about the story.
When my run was over and I was back home I was prompted to allocate the supplies I had gathered to different parts of the township, including a medical center, housing area and armory. As I did, each facility grew and the population of Able grew accordingly. I also realized that I had run an extra mile because I was so engrossed in my augmented reality.
I’m four missions deep into the story and find myself wanting to get home from work so I can go for another run. It’s like reading a great book but I’m running while enjoying it. That is the concept, the atomic unit, of “Zombies, Run!” Think about that for a second. It’s so damn simple but so damn compelling. I downloaded a running app, an audio book and an online game in one. Exercising is just a bonus. That’s incredibly profound to me.
“Zombies, Run!” is an example of an app that effectively augments reality in a very entertaining way. As a game, it is pretty basic. As a running app, it is pretty basic. As a story, it is pretty basic. But when you combine all of those elements into one the packaged result is incredibly engaging. Testing “Zombies, Run!” and deconstructing what makes it so compelling has given me a new way to think about software, creativity and engagement. Augmented reality is reality and creative people are going to find increasingly cool ways to mold our perceived reality through our mobile technology.
While I like listening to stories I prefer to be the one telling them. Thinking and studying examples like this will definitely make me better at that.