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A small team of developers talked about the way they’ve managed to turn airplanes into fantasy creatures for their upcoming AR game.
We are unconventional game producers developing an unconventional game. We are engineers, business developers, and military veterans that originally came together to solve a complex problem-aerospace data streaming – specifically, the riddle of expensive aircraft black box data streaming. During the process we discovered opportunity in an unlikely data stream, and are turning real aircraft into AR DRAGONS.
Through 80 Level, we are providing a glimpse into the technical innovation driving the airplane dragon transformation, and also giving a sneak peek into the addictive the game behind the tech.
Inspired by the disappearance of Malaysia Flight MH370, we built a small team to explore affordable opportunities to stream airline black box data in real time. In an odd turn of events, and a pause that couldn’t be scripted, we temporarily set aside our black box mission to go all-in on developing a mobile game unlike any other. A peculiar mix of a somewhat newly available data feed (live streaming position data from aircraft), the release of Pokémon GO, and our affection for Game of Thrones led us on a journey to create a new breed of AR mobile game; A game that allows players to use a device in their pocket, and immediately interact with the world around them. We are creating a title that changes the way people see everyday objects commonly taken for granted. In this case those objects are aircraft, which fly over our heads everyday often unnoticed.
We created a game engine that harnesses live streaming data from aircraft turning once ubiquitous overflying aircraft into dragons! The size, shape, color, even the country of origin of the aircraft will be embodied in the dragon you see through the lens of your Android or iPhone. Every dragon will be unique, just as every aircraft is unique.
Our team envisions discovering dragons through AR only to be the beginning. If you love the dragon you see, you can open a portal and catch it. Once caught, it becomes your virtual pet dragon. You are then responsible for providing for your needy pet dragons in every way imaginable. Your dragon has your back, especially when it battles on your behalf across the world (or wherever that particular aircraft flies during its lifetime), so you better treat your dragon well.
There are three members of the founding team: Thomas, Jason, and Joe. Admittedly, we are not experienced game developers, but we believe our initial outside approach will bring something to gaming, which has not yet been realized. The immediate reception of our game has been overwhelming. Most experienced industry professionals, and many of the intense gamers we speak to seem to be floored by what we are creating. Thomas and Jason joined up while they were still active in the military. Thomas, with his background in aerospace engineering brought the notion of alternative uses of a newly available data stream to the team. With a marketing background, Jason immediately saw great potential in the proposition. And lastly Joe, with a background in electrical and communications engineering with years of experience has proven pivotal to creating the technical backbone; which makes VarDragons unique. Together we sought out on a mission to prototype our concept, validate the game, and move forward with offering a new and exciting tech. And that’s exactly what we have done.
Although we could build the essential partnerships, construct and integrate the Magic Talon data (more on this below), and facilitate the critical API necessary to turn dragon into airplanes, none of the core team members had any game developing experience. We immediately contracted David and Corey from Bad Pilcrow. Both David and Corey have worked years as freelance developers and instructors at some of the worlds top game development institutions. Together, and with the help of a few other great freelance contactors out or Orlando, FL, we started bringing VarDragons concept to life.
The game differentiates between various types of aircraft, and generates the corresponding dragon. Small stumpy dragons represent small stumpy planes. Large jetliners from Norway are large Nordic inspired dragons. How do we distinguish the aircraft type? No, we didn’t invent a new advanced image recognition plugin for mobile devices; it’s all in the feed. There are a limited number of objects that constantly stream data in real-time, which depict their current three-dimensional location. Aircraft just happen to be one of these objects.
With our backgrounds, we recognized a fairly new data feed: live aircraft position. Various commercial sources, as well as a direct feed from the FAA make up a set of redundant live aircraft position data reports. Our pool of data covers aircraft flying over most parts of the globe and is refreshed every half second. The data set includes: altitude, heading, geo-location, aircraft type, airline, and flight plan just to name a few.
There are many existing aircraft tracking applications currently free on the market. FlightRadar24, FlightAware, and PlaneFinder represent just a few of the more popular options. They combine their own small crowd sourced receiver sets, as well as official feeds (like the FAA feed), to create their own API. They then take this API and create their own interface, which allows their users to discover all the information about the aircraft near them in real time. We’re doing exactly that except: rather than seeing aircraft on a map you see the dragon version of that plane. And rather than only seeing the dragon on a map, you are able to see the dragon right where the plane is in augmented reality.
Gamificaiton of a Real World Streaming Data API
When people see the prototype, many ask how we are able to recognize the aircraft in order to overlay the corresponding AR dragon. The driving force behind VarDragons is our unique ‘engine’. Simply put, our engine is a combination of our API backend and our AR front end, and everything in between. On the backend we developed key partnerships over the past several months with various providers of the aircraft data API. For the API backend (flight data feed), we employed Amazon Web Services (AWS) servers. We chose this route primarily due to low up front startup incentive costs, and competitive scalable pricing and reliability. We also factored in AWS’ ability to globally optimize latency when the servers are required to mirror during VarDragon’s global expansion into European and Asian markets. Our code is stored on our server which allows us to receive the redundant data feeds, sort through the most current based on timestamps, scrape the pertinent data needed to power the game, and forward this data automatically to the front end. We generally store about 5 to 10 seconds of this data to fill possible gaps, if they pop-up between redundant feeds.
The Front End (Unity)
Once the predetermined flight parameters arrive at the front-end server, they go through the process of becoming dragons, and placed in the gamers augmented reality world. Due to the limited AR SDKs available the team created a Unity AR code from scratch. We did not have the time to wait on an SDK, and the available SDKs did not allow us to tailor the code as needed for a live backend API. Due to the current setup, which separates the two server bases (one for the backend code, and the other managing the game frontend), latency exists when the final dragon is placed in the AR environment on a users device. We are countering this by coding a cross-examination of the flight plan data also received by our various sources. Our code, when compared to the telemetry of the aircraft data allows us to design our ‘aircraft anticipatory algorithm’ in order to predict the flight path ahead of the natural latency. Actual latency will be determined by comparing server timestamps and arrival timestamps derived from the individual’s mobile device. Once this is all calculated, the dragon is overlaid and positioned accordingly in the gamers AR environment.
Once the dragons are in place, it only represents the beginning in terms of programming and data queuing. The AR environment for this game needed to be massive. Meaning, unlike Pokémon GO for instance, our characters needed to be spotted for many miles away. A difficult challenge was scaling the dragons in reference to the gamer’s geographical position. Through many iterations of trial and error, we optimized distance and field of view setting to ‘place’ the dragons in the correct virtual distance from the observer. This allows the dragon to be somewhat larger than the aircraft, and thus cover the aircraft while flying through AR space, which grants the illusion we were seeking. With your naked eye you merely see a dot, but through the lens of your phone you see the more detailed ‘reality’: A dragon.
One of our primary goals going into this project was to distribute the Magic Talon. The Magic Talon is an optional add-on piece of hardware. We wanted a functional piece of desktop tech, and something that looks cool enough to stand-alone. Inside the Magic Talon is an actual aircraft data receiver. The tech is rather simple: A small UHF antenna, a small computer board inside (similar to a Raspberry Pi card), a power cord, our unique software embed, which is encapsulated by a mystic orb and silver dragon talon. The orb will light up when different events occur in the game (red when your dragon is being attacked, blue when your dragons are resting, and green when in flight).
The Magic Talon primarily serves as a community hub for gamers. Its key capability is ‘portal sharing’. If one gamer, who does not have a Magic Talon in the US wishes to catch unique dragons in a far off place, say Norway for example. That user can request to access a gamer in Norway who possesses a Magic Talon. Once approved for a small in game currency fee, the US-based gamer can pay the Norwegian Magic Talon holder to access their Talon and catch any dragon their talon can see. The US gamer gets to diversify their hoard, the Nordic gamer gets in game currency they can invest into their own dragon collection.
Gamers will be able to catch dragons within 25 miles of their location. Magic Talon owners (and gamers who use their Talon) can catch dragons as far as their talon can ‘see’, up to 90+ miles. We felt adding this hardware would truly incorporate a community connection and add value for those with and without the Talon.
Each and every dragon is unique, and individually modeled by our team. We created dragons that mimic the characteristics of the corresponding aircraft. We currently have five primary dragon models which represent the following aircraft: Cessna, Airbus A380, Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Airbus A319, and Boeing 777. We have also represented dragon origins from Asia, the US, ad Europe representing American Airlines, Etihad, Korean Airways and Norwegian Air Shuttle. The current model of the prototype randomizes the dragons based on general size (small to very large). During the next iteration of development, the aircraft ICAO ID, which is essentially the fingerprint of each aircraft globally, will be cross-referenced to our database.
The global aircraft information, which even includes aircraft colors, is updated constantly and is freely available. VarDragons will manage our own version of this database. Aircraft ID’s will cross-reference our database, which will already include the pre-modeled dragon corresponding with that particular aircraft. Each dragon will also feature a slightly randomized feature, which will make each individual dragon unique. The initial surge of 3D dragon modeling will be intense, but the good news for our team is a vast percentage of the worlds aircraft are represented by less than twenty model types, and only the livery (skin) will need to be modified. After a player catches their dragon, they are free to completely modify and personalize their dragon.
Gameplay (yes, it will be more than AR)
We envision discovering dragons through AR only to be the beginning. You must give your dragon the attention it needs to survive. This is critical if you choose to enter another exciting feature of VarDragons: Battle. From playing with, to training, to feeding your dragon; all interactions gamers have with their pet dragons will be done in either a 2D environment on their phone, or in an immersive virtual reality environment via various mobile phone-based enable head mounted displays. There will be multiple VR interactivity zones available in the initial release: A playground, a kitchen, an armory, and training ground just to name a few.
VarDragons allows players to interact on a global scale by trading and battling their dragons if they choose. At any time you can open a world map and see where your dragon is flying at that very moment. If you feel the need for a little more excitement, prompt a dragon near yours to battle!
By focusing on the key development of the two primary gaming features (the virtual pet dragon and the ability to battle), we hope to finally create an AR game that gives players a great offline gaming experience, as well connecting them with a global community. Our gameplay construct is a direct result of critical and in-depth feedback and lessons learned from other popular recent AR titles, which fell short in these areas. Additionally, we have received constructive feedback from over 1500 people over the past several months.
So what’s next and when can I catch dragons!? The VarDragons team will be surging the development effort from late summer and into the fall of this year, followed by a release in the spring of 2018.
This timeline however can be sped up considerably if we complete a successful KickStarter campaign over the summer. Our goal during this spring is to spread the word. Following a very successful initial exhibition campaign at GDC, SXSW, and of course PAX East, we are excited to be back behind our monitors campaigning an developing again. We are currently a small operation and critically need the community to jump onboard and help us complete this awesome vision.
To reward what has been an amazing support thus far, we have kicked off an incentive campaign: We hope to snag 5001 (yes, 5000 + 1) newsletter subscribers in order to kick off our KickStarter campaign. We will not launch this campaign unless we reach this critical goal: so subscribe! The person who recruits the most subscribers who will then actually back our KickStarter will receive $501 in in-game currency, our favorite little pudgy dragon statue, and other unique prizes as well. All other subscribers will be handsomely rewarded as well through a series of unique gifts to include initial beta releases to test over the fall. Would-be dragon owners can subscribe and learn more about our unique prize levels at www.VarDragons.com.
Over the summer and into the fall, VarDragon’s development focus will be on optimizing the VR experience for the Android device (Oculus Gear VR) in Spring 2018, followed by an iPhone version in first expansion in Summer 2018. The free to play game will be released both on iPhone and Android in spring of 2018.