Sweden’s 13th Lab brings augmented reality to Apple iPad

Tom Cruise in Top GunHere’s a confession: I’m not a fan of augmented reality. Drawing a layer of virtual information on the world around you is one of those ideas that seems like a lot of fun in theory — after all, what better way to feel like Tom Cruise in Top Gun than with your own heads-up display for the universe? — but in practice, it’s really been turned into a gimmick. It’s mainly used for selling you stuff or doing other icky stuff, but rarely to actually make life better or more interesting.

While all this means that AR could easily dismissed as a gimmick, however, I think I’ve seen something that could — perhaps — help things take a significant step forward. It comes courtesy of Swedish company 13th Lab, a Stockholm-based startup that has been working on its own augmented-reality-like system.

The Lab’s first game went live this week, called Ball Invasion (here’s a link on iTunes). It’s a shooter in which the world around you becomes a canvas for playing: hold your iPad 2 in front of you, and it becomes a window on a world that fills with targets that you can chase and shoot.

The game’s fun enough, but really the excitement is all about the technology. While you’ve no doubt seen augmented reality before, the difference here is 13th Lab is using a complex computer vision technique known as SLAM — that’s Simultaneous Localization and Mapping. This is a system developed in part by NASA for use in robotics, which allows an object (like, say, a drone) to look around, build up a picture of the world and then understand where it is.

This system — determining what is there, building up a mental map and then understanding position — is hard stuff: it’s the same thing used in the Mars Rover or autonomous aircraft. And what’s exciting is that Ball Invasion has an engine that has compressed SLAM down into a version that can run on an iPad using nothing more than its hardware and sensors.

That means it’s not just a camera with a layer placed over the top. It’s a way of seeing the world.

This video should give you an idea, although I should warn you that there’s a Harold Faltermeyer-meets-Eurodisco soundtrack:

So, they’ve managed to compress a complex technology into a form that can be used on a consumer device. But what’s most intriguing here isn’t that 13th Lab can create 3D games that use the real world as a backdrop. After all, there are ways to mimic this kind of approach — though admittedly not all of them are this elegant or accurate. Instead, the interesting part is that the team wants to build something for other people to access… a 3D toolkit that app developers can use.

Petter Ivmark, one of the co-founders, told us in an email that his plans are pretty broad.

“The ambition of the company is not just to make a game,” he said, “but rather to take this pretty complicated technology — that requires a lot of specific math and low level programming skills, meaning that very few developers work with it today — and make it available to developers as a platform that doesn’t require these skills at all.”

Will this make a significant difference to the direction AR can go in? It could. Making a really useable platform that does something incredibly complex is the sort of move that can open the door to all kinds of innovation. Other AR companies have also tried to tap developers in the past.

Of course, it can also open the door to all kinds of suckiness, too, because simple tools to do complex things mean that even more marketers, privacy-invaders and sales people can start muscling in on new territory. And if you want criticism of AR, then there’s plenty to go around (a great place to start would be Kevin Slavin, the co-founder of New York games studio Area/Code who gave a fascinating talk recently on what he thinks is wrong with augmented reality). But while what 13th Lab have done may not be enough to win over critics like me entirely, maybe opening up the tools is a way to make things a lot more interesting.