It has been a bumper few weeks for interesting home technology, each development pushing the envelope a little further but more importantly getting easier and more fun to use. The Oculus Quest 2 stand alone VR headset (with tethering to PC still possible if needed) arrived. Its an incremental improvement on the original Quest and seems to have caught a lot of people’s imagination who hadn’t dived into Virtual Reality before. This month though the focus in on Augmented Reality and Nintendo delivering its innovative Mario Kart World Live to the Switch console, it’s quite a ride too! I had pre-ordered it the moment it was announced, but like many pre-orders had forgotten it was arriving, so this was a nice surprise to hit the doorstep on a Friday afternoon.
Mario and Luigi
Most people will have heard of Mario, Nintendo’s key red hatted character who started his early video games days running up ramps with a hammer hitting barrels thrown at him from Donkey Kong. Mario has evolved through the early consoles 2D side scrolling into 3D puzzle and platform epics across all the Nintendo platforms. Mario Kart is a long running franchise that sees him and his fellow characters in a fast moving racing game set on fantasy world tracks and featuring lots of way to power up with boosts or slow down the competition with banana skins and other nefarious items. It has been a purely virtual experience (not including the cosplay real world Karts run by a company in Tokyo that saw tourists driving the streets there in character). Nintendo has done what it is getting rather good at, it’s given the well-known way of doing things a new twist with a physical Mario Kart experience.
Ready, Steady, Go!
On the left, you can see one of the new Mario Kart Live remote-controlled vehicles, the other one that is available is green and features Luigi. This Kart is controlled using the Switch console’s sticks and buttons. Radio controlled cars are not a new thing obviously, but this has the extra twist of featuring a camera as you can see sitting above Mario’s head. This camera provides a first-person view streamed to the Switch’s screen. Putting Mario down on a suitable floor, like in a kitchen, you can drive around either watch the radio controlled car as normal, or the Mario eye view as he skims around nearly clipping the kitchen cupboards or avoids the house cat, dog or family member. This is only the start of the experience. I often describe Augmented Reality (AR) where digital content is superimposed onto a view of the physical world and Mario Kart Live is a prim example this in action.
The box comes with 4 carboard (yes Nintendo likes to use simple, effective materials) racing gates that you can position around whatever space you have to drive through and around. Using the game on the Switch you are first asked to drive your track, hitting the numbered gates in order, to create whatever shape track you like. Here the AR starts top kick in. Firstly, your view of the actual Kart and Mario on screen is completely replaced with a digital version. If you look again at the camera position the camera is not actually looking at Mario and the Kart only straight forward, but the effect on screen is very convincing and allows Mario to be animated as he steers, even looking at you over his shoulder as he reverses the Kart. For the drawing out of the track virtual paint is poured over your wheels as you leave a trail completing a lap. Once the track is in place the games can begin. A track is painted on your real floor, gates, powerups and other vehicles and atmospheric effects are also thrown into the mix. You can of course look up from the screen and see a small plastic car tootling around, but on screen is a more magical, and apparently faster (due to the scale and view) experience. Unlike many Switch games it is not possible to ask the application to do a screen shot, but this is an example of what you might see, after a few races and some customization options have been won, such as a space suit for Mario. Speed boosts, such as the mushroom shown below do speed up your Kart, hit a banana skin and you slow down.
Room for one, or three, more
The racing supports up to four Karts at a time, in this multiplayer mode should you often find you are coming into contact with the other Karts, of course sometimes that might be out of your actual field of view, but the rumble feedback on the Switch lets you know there has been contact which is a very nice touch. The added competition with people in the room with you mimics some of the core gameplay of “normal” Mario Kart games, the sofa racing on split screen with all the social dynamics of pipping a family member to the post with a well times banana peel creates some magical bonding moments. I found I was consistently getting beaten by my teenage kids despite taking some pretty nice lines into the corners.
My daughter asked why I was not using drift? In the video games there is a quirky form of braking button that performs a cartoony slide, not like normal driving racing games, that if executed correctly gives a speed boost out of a corner. I had foolishly assumed that because these were physical Karts, not going fast enough to actually slide that I would not have that option. Of course this is a fantasy construction, so it allows you to hold the slide button and then the physical Kart gets its boost, the same as throwing a mushroom powerup out (I was more than happy to instinctively think a virtual mushroom would boost it of course!). Again Nintendo throws in surprises and, just like pipping someone at the post it produced a memorable moment with some techie dad fallibility thrown in.
The Shape of Things to Come
Here we have a home implementation of some now relatively simple to implement AR. The clever bit is putting the ideas together, not just being a tech preview. Kids, and many adults, will start to see this as perfectly normal to fill the world with digital information. Not all applications, games or otherwise fit this model, but an awful lot of them do once you start seeing what is achievable.