VANCOUVER - Tapping into technology has long been part of the routine for runners like Craig Slagel, from using stopwatches to digital music players to sophisticated GPS trackers.
But Slagel wanted a more engaging experience, so the Vancouver-based app developer set to work on a smartphone game he could play while his feet hit the pavement below him.
The result is "Vancity Dash," an experimental iPhone and Android app that tracks a runner's progress using GPS technology, putting the user in the middle of a retro-style video game, complete with low-fi graphics, music and sounds that harken back to the early days of Nintendo and Sega.
Runners collect coins as they go, which users who live in Vancouver can use to unlock local landmarks. Those unlocked landmarks, when a user runs by, provide bonus coins. Anyone using the app outside of Vancouver can collect the coins, but not the landmarks.
The entire game is designed to take place in users' headphones, allowing them to concentrate on the task at hand: running.
"My running friends are always looking for ways to enhance their running experience, whether it's music or looking at their GPS or timing themselves," says Slagel.
"I thought, 'How about something that's a bit more interactive and a little different? Really something to get you out?'"
"Vancity Dash" is part of a relatively obscure trend of location-based games, which use the GPS information from smartphones and tablets to allow users to interact with the real world.
They can range from simple tasks like racking up check-ins on FourSquare to complex apps such as Google's Ingress project, a so-called massive multiplayer game set to debut on the Android system that will use real-world GPS maps to put players in a science-fiction story involving global mind control.
Slagel created Vancity Dash with two other students who graduated from Simon Fraser University's digital media master's program.
He says the game, which is free, is primarily an experiment designed to test the technology. He says he and his colleagues at Leaping Coyote Interactive will use the lessons from Vancity Dash when they launch a new game later this year, pairing runners with a virtual running buddy, which will require food, water and gear that users will be able to purchase using points earned in the game.
Slagel says location-based gaming is a natural next step in a world where most people are carrying around smartphones and gamers are becoming accustomed to physically interacting with games through devices such as Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's Xbox Kinect.
"I love the idea of combining the location technology and the game technology," he says.
"People are more interactive with their gaming, and I think location is the next level."
One of the most popular location-based games also focuses on running.
"Zombies, Run!" was released last year for Apple's iOS system and Android devices. Users play the role of a character in a zombie apocalypse, progressing through levels complete with audio narration as they run. When the zombies start chasing, they have to run faster to escape.
"Zombies, Run!" has been a huge success. Its UK-based developers, which originally sought funding through the online crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter, have sold more than 400,000 copies — a particularly impressive figure considering the app costs about $8.
One of the "Zombies, Run!" creators, Adrian Hon, says even the best apps available to runners have traditionally been about tracking their activity, not making the runs themselves more fun.
"I've run since I was a teenager, and I found it quite difficult to get into it, so I managed to do it through a combination of gadgets like GPS or apps," says Hon.
"But I was always surprised that there wasn't anything that actually made the act of running more interesting."
Hon says the idea to use zombies came from a running group that a colleague had attended. Participants were asked why they wanted to run.
"Some people said they wanted to lose weight, other people said they wanted to get fit, and one lady said she wanted to survive the zombie apocalypse," says Hon.
"This is a game where you're running all the time, and there are not many instances in the world where that would actually make sense."
Hon says the success of location-based games will likely depend on their ability to adapt to wherever a user is located, rather than requiring them to be played at a specific spot or only in a certain city.
Few people — particularly runners — like to be told where to go, he says.
"When I go running, I like to run by the park, I like my set route," he says.
"I wouldn't like the game telling me to go down some dodgy alleyway."
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