Sooner or later someone is going to crack the code and create a successful mass market augmented reality experience. Perhaps that will be Google, with their Glass project.
Or it could be that the "later" part of the first sentence up there turns out to be more prescient. Perhaps what's needed for mainstream acceptance of AR is a generation that grows up with toys that use elements of augmented reality to enhance play.
That such toys can be a lot of fun is the bet that Tek Recon, a Canadian toy manufacturer that is entering a category dominated by the megabrand Nerf, has made.
At this month's Electronic Entertainment Expo I spoke with Tek Recon's V.P. of Marketing Harold Chizick who was on the show floor to represent the company.
The booth was stocked with prototype "blasters": toy guns that fire soft ammunition pellets. Think doughy rubber bands that let you know you've been hit without the sting. The toy guns were impressive enough: meaty pieces that feature recoil and fit well in an adult hand.
What I was more interested in was what Chizick had in his coat pocket. It was there he kept his iPhone, which had a beta version of the companion app.
"It's not an app that keeps score," said Chizick, "it won't tell you if you hit somebody, that's pure play. What the app does is that it enhances it so you can play team play. It enhances the social aspect of the game."
The primary way the app does this is through a WiFi and GPS enabled locator program. Players create an over-the-air network using the app and their phones, which broadcast friend and foe transponder information. It's much like the motion tracker devices from video games–themselves based on the classic film Aliens— only brought off the screen and into reality.
There's a few other neat features built in: a zoom scope, walkie talkies, and an ammo tracker that works when you put the phone into the gun itself.
Chizick says that the company knows it is going up against a large competitor, but that over the past five years the blaster category has been flat. Tek Recon hopes that their offering is seen as a step between Nerf toys and less mainstream activities like paintball and Airsoft.
The company is confident in its ability to "build a better mousetrap" when it comes to physical toys, but when it came time to develop the companion app Tek Recon turned to Kickstarter to get the resources to do it right.
"The app world and the development of apps was so foreign to us that we really needed to go best in class and spend the right amount of money to really build a robust and engaging app," said Chizick. "We needed the extra money to do that and the best way to do that we thought was to see what the end users, what the fans think of our concept here. That was a real test for us."
Those fans must have liked the vision, as they funded the campaign to 120% of the goal.
Chizick said that the blasters are on track to reach stores in August, and the developers should have a consumer version of the app ready to go in time for the launch.
The odds of this being the "killer app" for augmented reality experiences are low, but that may be the wrong thinking to apply to AR's struggle for mainstream acceptance. The Tek Recon blasters are part of a rising tide of AR devices and software that are slowly changing our perception of what is "normal" for human/computer interfaces. In ten years it will probably be weird to see a toy gun that doesn't have all of the Tek Recon app functions built in.
Follow Noah Nelson on Twitter (@noahjnelson)