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iBeacon Could Be Apple's Secret Gaming Weapon, Developer Says

So secret, in fact, that even Apple might not realize it yet.

Original image courtesy of Legend of Zelda

To date, very few games have figured out how to entertainingly integrate a player’s location. The best known exceptions are perhaps the StreetPass games on Nintendo’s 3DS and the mobile game Ingress, made by Google’s Niantic Labs.


But Dave Bisceglia, CEO of The Tap Lab, says there’s a lot of unrealized potential for game developers — especially those working on multiplayer experiences — in millions of phones. An internally tested version of its mobile simulation game Tiny Tycoons uses Apple’s iBeacon positioning system.

To steal my colleague Jason Del Rey’s explanation from yesterday, iBeacon “lets Apple smartphones and iPads [running iOS7] communicate with one another or with tiny, battery-powered pieces of hardware commonly referred to as beacons. The beacons can broadcast content to nearby Bluetooth-enabled phones.”

Officially, those beacons are at the center of a retail push. The notion is that stores with beacons could use them to figure out where the mobile devices in people’s pockets are going, and to send them location-aware push notifications to nudge behavior in one direction or the other. However, Bisceglia contends that game developers can and should also tap into those same features.

He shared this video of himself walking into a Starbucks while a co-worker already inside simulates a beacon signal. As soon as he crosses the threshold, Tiny Tycoons nudges him into action by serving up the screen name of the player who “owns” that Starbucks in the game and daring him to make a bid for it.

“We’ve been working on it on the side for a long time,” Bisceglia said, criticizing GPS and standard Bluetooth as battery drainers and not accurate enough. “From the tests we’ve been doing, it’s incredibly snappy and dependable.”

He praised another iBeacon experiment, the game Pkpkt, which lets players “pickpocket” one another’s virtual currency as they pass by each other. It demonstrates, he said, that an iBeacon-powered game doesn’t need to be connected to a retail beacon to work — which is good, since at the moment the beacons are most commonly found inside Apple Stores.

If more developers follow the lead of Tiny Tycoons and Pkpkt, we might see faster and more accurate local multiplayer games, which could make real-time play across multiple devices more feasible. For Tiny Tycoons, though, the trigger to rolling out iBeacon support will be more retail beacons, to be layered on top of the game’s existing Foursquare location data.

“For it to be really meaningful, it needs to be ubiquitous, or nearly so,” Bisceglia said. “We could roll it out at a moment’s notice, but we just need to have enough coverage.”

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