UK map maker Ordnance Survey is bringing a new concept to the mobile gaming market: not looking at your phone.
Setting itself the paradoxical ambitions of getting people out and about while also appealing to new audiences through smartphone gaming, the 300-year-old government-owned company has a balance to strike.
Mike Hawkyard, head of mobile games at Ordnance Survey, told The Register that the company already has a prototype up and running as a result of its £300,000 deal with developer PRELOADED, signed in November last year.
"We will be offering people a new experience, something that they haven't tried before, something that's a little bit different from all the things that are already out there," he teased.
The idea is to not be Pokémon GO, which might see hordes of players transfixed by their devices progressing zombie-like across a field from which they believe scarce virtual creatures will emerge. Instead, the augmented-reality game is set to use data held by the mapping company to encourage a more subtle and less frequent interaction with the device.
"The key is the countryside and the great outdoors," Hawkyard said. "Our job is to encourage people to go and explore it. We don't particularly want people looking at their phones all the time. The whole point of being outside is to learn these new skills and to get muddy and just grow that resilience and love nature. It's important to us to build an augmented and geolocation game that encourages people to think about their location, to have a look at what's out there and consider it before they go out the door. And then on their adventure, whether they walk into the picnic spot or the local park, they understand that reaching a location will be beneficial for playing the game."
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The walk itself would be interspersed with only brief moments of gameplay, while at the same time the device would trace data for goals, rewards, and score tables, he added.
Hawkyard, who joined OS in March, said the idea was inspired by families who said it was sometimes difficult to get their kids out of the house when it's overcast and there is more amusement on the TV or games console. His own experiences with geocaching showed a bit of gamification was a great motivator for a bit of fresh air, he said.
The Ordnance Survey was founded by the British Army in the wake of the Jacobite rising of 1745 to help it get a look at the territories of rebel clans in the Scottish Highlands. In 2017, it integrated an augmented-reality tool with the OS Maps app, allowing walkers to hold their phone up to a landscape and see a series of labels pop up on their screen.
Its ambitions in mobiles gaming go well beyond the current commission for PRELOADED's AR game.
In October last year, it set out a £6m tender programme for developers to support its programme which might include niche games for dog walkers or hill climbers, Hawkyard said.
"We've got our data scientists working on using more of our data with the rapid prototyping team to figure out how we can identify land use, so we can encourage you to walk to certain locations," he added. "Similarly, what we can do with height above sea level. We're layering up all the things that you do on a walk but perhaps don't register. We can reward you for them [in a game]."
PRELOADED's Ordnance Survey AR game is set to launch in the spring of next year. But before then, Register readers with a penchant for ponchos, cagoules, and stout walking shoes should look out for the beta programme. ®