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Augmented reality, combining real world views and digital information, is not particularly new, but it is still considered in its infancy. The technology has been used in a variety of ways, from GPS systems to fitness apps, though entertainment seems to be the most popular.
GamesBeat had a chance to sit down with Scott Jochim, president of Digital Tech Frontier and Popar Toys, to discuss his company’s line of augmented reality children’s books, which are paving the way for affordable household 3D experiences.
GamesBeat: Can you elaborate on what your company does?
Scott Jochim: The background of Digital Tech Frontier, my firm, is that for the last 15 years we’ve been working in the entertainment, training, and educational realms of technology. Finding different ways to not only influence, but educate and entertain through technology. Human interface devices have been a very important part of our technology — anything that involves both emotion and intellect, and if you can have fun with it, that helps as well.
Our products have included everything from NASCAR simulators for General Motors and Toyota to cancer therapy simulators, to help patients get through some different pain modalities, such as dialysis or burn treatment centers or even anxiety through chemotherapy. Our products have done everything from 3D stereoscopic imaging to natural, surprisingly enough, aromatherapy technology, allowing scent to be dispensed for different ride films or entertainment venues, so people see, hear, smell, and feel the experience.
In the last five years we’ve been concentrating on a product the Virtual Reality Development Lab, allowing virtual worlds created by students and teachers and be shared outside and inside the classroom, creating an engaging way to take information and package it for an environmental and spatial technology forum. These technologies have created what our current technology infrastructure is, which is the Popar Toys lines of products. We feel that a convergence of a virtual environment and a real environment, that augmented reality, the transference of being able to place objects or experiences from the real world in the virtual environment, and vice versa, is a very important aspect of where we’re converging to with technology.
GamesBeat: Can you give me some specifics of what products Popar Toys will be debuting and selling?
Jochim: Well, we figured we’d want to come out with four products to debut into the market. Trying to cover a lot of different individuals. It’s hard, as a child at heart, coming out with one core product. The first product we came out with was called Planets 3D. Myself, I wanted to be an astronaut, until Virgin Galactic gets off the ground I don’t have tickets yet, but my hope is there one day. Rich Branson, if he could send me a ticket, that’d be awesome. Are you familiar with that?
Jochim: Yeah. Hopefully you’ll get a ticket, maybe you will, you can write a report on it and tell me how cool it is.
GamesBeat: Journalists get a lot of free perks but I don’t know if I’d take it. I have a hard enough time flying from San Francisco to Las Vegas, so I think going up in the atmosphere would be kinda rough.
Jochim: Yeah, it could be rough, but it’s all worth the patch, man, the patch that says you’re an astronaut, it’d be very cool.
GamesBeat: I think when I’m like 85 and really old and have beaten Skyrim and everything, I’d maybe give it a go.
Jochim: Fair enough, fair enough. I’m sure my employees would not want to hear that I want to go to space, they’d probably want their paychecks before I went there.
So we decided to create Planets 3D, giving every kid the ability to be the explorer for the first time. If I read a current book, or trading cards or something from NASA or about a space explorer or even Stephen Hawking, you flip through the pages, you see some pictures, some text, maybe you could kick on the Discovery Channel on TV and listen to William Shatner talk about space and the final frontier. But our books do something completely different, you’ll actually open up the pages of the book and the earth will rise out of the book and spin around you. If you bring an object into the book, we call it an “I-paddle,” I for interactive, and bring that close to the earth, you’ll actually fly above the earth into the ISS space station and you’ll see that traveling above the earth’s atmosphere.
Every page of the book that you open up, something different will occur. On Mars you’ll see the Spirit rover traveling over the Martian landscape. You can explore that landscape or the Mars atmosphere. There’s even a page that’s called “Into Orbit,” as you open the page you see a space shuttle launch off the page and into your world. Allowing yourself to not only read it and see it, but become the process as well. That’s an important aspect of our books, we feel that you can read about the book, you can see the book come alive, but now you can actually become the astronaut as you’re reading it. As I’m watching this space shuttle launch off the pages of the book, I can look at myself in the book and see myself as an astronaut. There’s a helmet on my head.
GamesBeat: What technology, in addition to the books, is required to have these experiences?
Jochim: A laptop computer or desktop computer, Mac or PC, and a webcam. That’s it.
GamesBeat: I was watching a video that you sent along to me, it showed a few children playing with the books. I was wondering, in what ways is this really different from… Especially on the videogame side and especially on iPhones, there’s a lot of augmented reality that came onto the scene about two years ago, and over the past two years has blown up a little bit. The iPhone, PlayStation Vita, they all have augmented reality programs and games, the space has been explored reasonably well so far. So are you familiar with those, and what is really the unique thing you have over those?
Jochim: Well, I think it’s interface, and the ability to become what you’re doing. A mobile phone, for instance, or a Vita, which I’m very excited about, you are using it, you’re looking through into the looking-glass universe. Looking at cards, exploring an environment. When you’re using a Mac or a PC, the environment is being looked at with you, you are exploring the environment together. The ability that our books or our trading cards allows is, as you’re reading about an astronaut, you can look up at the screen and see yourself as an astronaut. You have a bubble over your head. Or you’re reading about the praying mantis, and you are a praying mantis as you’re reading about it in the book. The ability to change into those costumes, be able to see yourself as a swashbuckling pirate while you’re reading an adventure story, is possible with our book. You’re looking at the universe through those other devices and exploring it, while this device is showing you in that universe. It’s giving a reflection, rather than a binoculars approach to augmented reality. You have an interface such as a book, you can use that book to then control that space shuttle. Or if you’re a girl reading about princesses, your dad’s reading to you about princesses, and you’re like, Daddy, I want to be the pink princess. Daddy can change her into the pink princess as he’s reading through the book. How awesome is that? You’re becoming those characters you’re reading about, you’re exploring them, you’re able to play with those individuals and those attitudes inside the book, becoming a little bit of a drama-based or theater-based experience as well. Which is translating into a lot of different aspects. Mobile aspects, don’t get me wrong, are going to be incorporated into our books, we’re looking at releasing all of our books on the Mac and PC at one time, and we’re going to be working with mobile to create games, as you’ve seen before, inside the books, such as… The construction book will have a real-world brick-breaker. Our Planets 3D book will have a basketball game in it. You’ll be able to use our books and our cards as those interface devices to create those video game as well. We see the video game aspect being a very interactive, hands-on experience in each one of the books, but not the main aspect of it. What we want to do, realistically, is when you open up a book, you want to become that experience you’re reading about. Reading it, seeing it, and becoming it.
GamesBeat: I was actually intrigued by one of the very first things you said, you mentioned smelling, when you’re having these experiences. I was wondering if you could give me some examples of how that applies here?
Interview continues on the next page.