Borglar Turns Your City Into a Video Game Through Augmented Reality

Augmented reality has been a dream of geeks for decades. The idea of putting on a set of glasses or having a chip implanted in your head that creates a virtual HUD augmenting everything you see sounds like something right out of science fiction. Until recently, it has been.

Now, augmented reality apps are available for smartphones and companies are racing to see which one can create interfaces that can exist everywhere from a set of eyeglasses to contacts you can actually put on your eyes.

One of these apps hopes to turn your city into a giant video game. Borglar gives you the ability to see and collect prizes and special deals at stores you are actually near. Collecting coins and medallions as you play will also allow you to win real-world prizes offered by sponsors of the app.

I spoke briefly with Dave Sanguinetti, the President of Borglar, to find out exactly what Borglar is and why folks should give it a try.

What is Borglar?

Borglar takes advantage of your Android or iOS (coming soon) device’s built-in GPS and camera to present an augmented reality that encourages you to walk around your city to collect coins and take advantage of special offers available through the app itself. Think of it as an interactive Foursquare that allows you to physically locate, walk up to, and collect virtual prizes and currency that could save you real money or help you bring up real-world prizes just for participating.

Borglar uses a combination of technologies to give the user the ability to experience a surprisingly accurate augmented reality as they view the world through their smartphone or tablet. This reality places medallions, coins, and boxes with mystery prizes in 3D spaces around real places. You could walk right up to a medallion, put it in the on-screen crosshairs, and tap the screen to collect it. You just have to be within 15 meters of the virtual item.

Borglar is set up to the advantage of the player, with the majority of the financial backing coming from vendors that wish to add their businesses to the Borglar user’s experience. For example, a local coffee shop might buy a box with a special coupon inside right outside of its front doors, which players will see on their radar and walk over to.

On the surface, this seems like a genuinely fun gaming experience, and a great way to find new places while walking around a new city. If anything, it could save you a few bucks on lunch.

What about Merchants?

Merchants can create accounts with Borglar and log in anytime to create campaigns that place these virtual goods within their brick-and-mortar locations. Imagine being able to host a scavenger hunt within your city, and use that to promote your company and/or brand.

This is the heart of what makes Borglar work. Users play the game, and companies enjoy the advertising without being blatantly obvious about it. Your ad becomes part of the game, and not some annoying billboard that pops up, disrupting the experience for players.

Everything in Borglar happens in real-time, so there is no delayed gratification for the user or the merchant. If you want to throw a special event together in an hour for Borglar members, you can do that.

Another option for merchants that want to create their own app, independent of Borglar, is to license the technology directly from Borglar. This allows the merchant to create an independent app that allows users to enjoy the same accurate GPS interface with a scavenger hunt made just for the brand. If anything, it brings more potential customers Borglar’s way and gives merchants the opportunity to design something interesting to drive traffic to its stores.

Does it Work?

Borglar released in beta for Android during SXSW Interactive, with an iOS app on the way. I got to experience the game first-hand from the Borglar booth at Alienware ScreenBurn held in the Parmer Events Center in Austin. It was remarkably accurate at the time, and responded fairly well to quick turns and small steps, indicating that whatever it is Borglar does to make geo-location accurate worked better than just about anything I had seen before. It was fairly impressive.

There were some occasions of jitter and jumpiness on my sister-in-law’s Android phone, however. Keeping in mind that Borglar is still in beta, it was a very impressive trial.

Will People Use it?

That said, a program such as this only works if people (and businesses) participate. Even if Borglar has the biggest and best augmented reality game out there, who’s to say that the larger general market is ready for it?

Virtual reality was supposed to be a huge deal in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It was all you could hear about when you talked about the future of gaming. Today, virtual reality is practically a thing of the past, with only a few products still being made to fit the niche. The vast majority of gaming happens against a screen, as it has for the past 50+ years.

Finding out what people will and will not take advantage of in the world of technology is a puzzle that has stumped marketers and entrepreneurs since the dawn of the computer age. IBM’s greatest minds once thought there was no future for software, and it was this assumption that paved the way for Microsoft to become the dominant brand in the computer world. HP passed on the first personal computer, making what would become Apple, Inc. possible.

The game itself is part geocaching, part Foursquare, and a dash of real-world MMO that has you going from one place to another gathering virtual loot. While it may be novel at the moment, it could prove to be one of those addicting apps that takes off overnight.

Augmented reality is an interesting concept, and one that really captures the imagination of tech enthusiasts, but whether or not it will go the way of virtual reality remains to be seen. Perhaps Borglar is on to something here.

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Ryan Matthew Pierson