Laser tag is still one of the coolest things ever, but it’s kinda weird for me (a 32-year-old man) and my friends to go to the local Magic Mountain to take on a team of kids celebrating little Gary’s 10th birthday.
This is where Father.io comes in.
Father.io is a new generation of laser tag that uses your smartphone and augmented reality to create what feels like a real-world first-person shooter video game. The company (which shares the Father.io name with the game) has started a crowdfunding project on IndieGogo to raise $50,000 to manufacture the special sensors that connect to the back of your iPhone or Android phone to make the entire game possible.
After launching in late January, the crowdfunding campaign has surpassed $210,000 from 4,523 backers. The game has seemingly caught the attention of so many people because it promises to combine elements from massively multiplayer hits like World of Warcraft with the geo-locational action of developer Niantic Labs’ Ingress. Only you don’t play Father.io with a controller, a mouse, or a few swipes on a screen — instead, you’re holding your phone up like it’s a weapon in Call of Duty and getting in fierce laser tag battles around your town.
This is a concept that combines the lucrative toy market with the $34.8 billion mobile-gaming business. That’s something we’ve seen successfully exploited previously by products like the Anki Overdrive connected car-racing set, which uses a smartphone to control artificially intelligent cars alongside the player’s vehicle.
GamesBeat talked with Father.io creator Francesco Ferrazzino last month to talk about this project and how it works. He explained that the power of the smartphone — along with its motion sensors, GPS tracking system, and Bluetooth connectivity — freed him up to build a professional-level laser tag attachment that’s only the size of a key chain. This enables you to point your phone like you’re taking a picture, but the screen will instead show you the heads-up display that you’d expect to find in something like Halo.
“Everything is real time,” Ferrazzino told GamesBeat. “You have your health and your different weapons. We make it very good-looking, even photorealistic, because we adapt every object that’s 3D in the scene. We calculate it with the light, the real ambient light around you. It seems very realistic.”
You can get a taste of what it looks like in the video below:
This is all possible because of Father.io’s “Inceptor,” which is the official name for the laser emitter that you attach to the back of your phone. It has an array of sensors on it to help make the game work. The emitter has an impressive range of around 50 meters and almost no lag. This means that you can get into fights in open fields where you can snipe an opponent from a distance and get almost instant feedback that you took them out.
“The device will flash colors. But you’ll also see, in real time, that you’ve hit the enemy,” explained Ferrazzino. “One of the cool things we’ve added to this is, to minimize the lag over 3G and LTE connections, instead of broadcasting this information via the internet, we’re going to broadcast inside the hardware. We have a 2Ghz connection. That’s like the technology of a walkie-talkie. It’s not any very special technology, but it allows you to communicate over a long range, much longer than Bluetooth.”
With that old-fashioned radio built into the Inceptor, Father.io can send about 9.6Kb of information per second from one phone to the other without having to connect to the Internet. The company designed the multiplayer fights around this.
“All the netcode is built and broadcasted locally,” said Ferrazzino. “We don’t use the internet, in case you lose a packet because something doesn’t arrive. This allows us to reduce the lag to a nearly impossible level.”
Father.io did some tests where the hits went over the Internet, and that added around a quarter of a second of lag. Anyone who plays games online knows that’s unacceptable, and it turns out it is even worse in real life. But thanks to the built-in radio, your phone will instantly pop up with a notification that you shot down the other player — just like when you play Call of Duty.
But you don’t need the Inceptor to participate in Father.io — although it does make it easier. This is because the main goal of Father.io is to hold real-world locations for one of two factions. You can go and claim a faction without needing the peripheral. But if an area is already held by the enemy, you’ll need the Inceptor to initiate a takeover sequence that gives the other team a chance to defend its territory.
“There’s a story around all this that explains the name Father.io and how the world is divided into factions that fight for territory,” said Ferrazzino.
Father.io’s story is still mostly a mystery, but it involves a secret alien species infiltrating humanity.
“We divided the world into areas of about 50 meters,” continued Ferrazzino. “You can claim your own area and interact with 12 million points of interest all around the world. We have all the data Google Street [View] knows.”
The game will know what is in each area as well. If you claim a hospital, for example, you can generate more medkits for your team. If you have a lot of commerce in a sector, your faction will produce more weapons and have more in-game shops to purchase upgrades.
“The latest example, if you own a college, you have many more points for history, and you can research history much faster than the opposite faction in your city,” explained Ferrazzino. “We basically re-create what happens in a real-world scenario on an apocalyptic setting.”
Of course, a bunch of people running around pretending to shoot each other could draw the attention of, say, the police. It’s possible that someone could get hurt in this situation, but the Father.io company doesn’t think this is a problem. You have to keep in mind that you aren’t holding a gun or anything that looks like a gun. Instead, you are merely holding up your phone like you’re taking a picture or a video. Hopefully, police won’t shoot you for taking a photograph in a public place.
With no real concern about liability and all of the tech and gameplay in place, the company is now trying to figure out how interested people are in this sort of thing.
“The presale is important for understanding how much people will like the idea when they actually have the chance to buy it,” said Ferrazzino.
And with more than 4,000 people plunking down the cash to fund the Indiegogo, it’s safe to assume that Father.io is going to find an audience.