Parrot AR.Drone: Helicopter + Augmented Reality = Recipe for CES Buzz

Parrot AR Drone

One of the most buzzed-about gadgets at this year’s CES was Parrot’s AR.Drone, a four-rotor helicopter controllable on iPhone and mounted with a camera for creating augmented-reality flying games.

That’s a surprising product for Parrot, given that they’re probably best-known for their sexy Philippe Stark-designed speakers. And it’s interesting in that it mashes up three of the hottest trends of current research: AR games; micro UAV’s, and remote-controlled spying.

For example, Sensorfly, a drone being developed at Carnegie Mellon which can’t be knocked down and controls it’s own flight path:

At home, in the spy game, you have Wowee’s Rovio, a camera-armed robot sentry:

And on the games front you have lots of examples of games that use the real-world as a staging ground:

The AR games tend of be a little unconvincing–I mean, who cares if they just offer some tiny bit of real-world gloss? A decent Xbox game is still more fun. And meanwhile, remote controlled sensors have either been wonky in the extreme (eg, Rovio) or limited to specialized, military use (eg, Sensorfly).

By combining all of these, Parrot’s hopes to turn its drone into a full-fledged developer platform, for which others could develop games.

Which brings us back to a lesson about AR in general, and it’s application to gaming: When people say it’s a fad, it’s often because the AR is presented as the crucial component. While it might be cool, it’s ultimately a gimmick–unless you can combine it with other functions and features. (Social networking comes to mind.) Now maybe the Parrot drone is gimmicky, but it’s good proof that if you’re hoping to make AR into something more, it’s gotta be a supplement rather than the main attraction.CK