Way back in the fall of 2004, I may have invented the world’s first GPS-based augmented reality game. In light of the stratospheric success of pokemon goI wonder if maybe I should have tried to patent my invention.
My game was called Augmented Reality Multi-User Dungeon, or ARMUD in short, and it was the subject of my university thesis. The idea seemed pretty simple to me: I started with a text-based MUD, then layered a real-world positional element on top of it. As you walked across the college campus, you moved through the MUD zones. In the real world, you might be in the sorority bar; in the game, when you read the description of the zone on your mobile device, you actually found yourself in a noisy inn full of stereotypical angry dwarves, hat-wearing people, and trixy hobbits.
If you run into another player, you can trade or fight or talk, or send in-game whispers if you don’t want to talk to the person in real life.
I even hatched a plan to quickly expand the number of augmented zones: instead of mapping the entire university campus myself and writing descriptions, I would crowdsource it (a term that didn’t exist back then). For example, if someone wrote the extended description for the washroom, they would become the “lord” of that zone, which would bring some benefits, such as bonus XP if people stayed and interacted with your zone.
ARMUD was, if you’ll forgive a brief moment of distinctly un-British self-aggrandizement, damned great.
Build additional pylons
But alas, my genius thesis was stillborn. I was several years ahead of the technology curve.
At the time, I had an HP iPaq PDA with Windows Mobile, which was pretty much the latest in mobile technology. The PDA, which cost around £600, had 802.11b Wi-Fi, which started to become popular in 2004. It also had a decent CPU. But it had no GPS or cellular connectivity. You could add those features at great cost via ‘jacks’: I think the GSM/GPRS jack cost around £300.
Without GPS readily available—something that wouldn’t happen until smartphones became popular half a decade later—I experimented with the idea of using triangulated Wi-Fi for positioning. It worked well enough to pin someone’s location to a large area, such as one of the large plazas in the center of campus, but there simply weren’t enough Wi-Fi networks back then to produce a decent resolution location fix. I toyed with installing more Wi-Fi hubs across campus, but considering they still cost around £100 each at the time, that seemed a bit extreme.
Eventually I gave up: I just couldn’t find a way to find out a player’s physical location cheaply and easily. Plus there was the small fact that only two or three students on campus actually had a PDA that could play the game, had I invested in the infrastructure.
Instead, I shifted the focus of my project to natural language processing: the ability to type your MUD commands in plain English and make sure the game understands you.
Thinking about my missing millions
In the summer of 2005 I handed in my thesis, completed some exams and graduated. Years passed. My dissertation sat on a shelf collecting dust until I finally moved and put it in a cardboard box. Then, starting in 2007, I started seeing a number of location-based apps appear. First they used Wi-Fi triangulation: in Plunderfor example, you played a pirate moving between wifi hotspot “islands”, trading and fighting along the way.
Then in 2008, smartphone GPS started to become a thing with the release and huge popularity of the iPhone 3GS. When Foursquare launched in 2009, where people automatically check in to real-world locations via GPS, I really started to think if I ARMUD further. And then, of course, when Ingress…pokemon go‘s predecessor – was released in 2013, everything had completely fallen into place.
I probably should have at least looked into patenting some of the ideas of ARMUD, but I then knew very little about intellectual property law, except that software patents were not something I fully supported. Now that 12 years have passed, is it too late for me to patent my ARG technology? Should I’m trying to patent it? These are the questions that keep me up at night, friends.
Frame image by PG/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images