Tender Claws, the Los Angeles-based studio behind the popular VR game “Virtual Virtual Reality,” released a new augmented reality (AR) mobile game for Android phones Thursday. “Tendar,” as the game is being called, puts players in charge of an AR guppy that is part Tamagochi, part sentient AI.
The object of the game is to nurture the guppy and grow its intelligence by feeding it with human emotions and real-world objects. If that sounds a bit weird, it’s probably no accident: After all, Tender Claws’ “Virtual Virtual Reality” put players into a world ruled by mean-spirited robot overlords that used humans as laborers for their amusement — complete with a glitchy underworld of high-tech resistance.
For “Tendar,” the studio decided to figure out how to tell stories in augmented reality, while also pushing the technical boundaries of the medium. Instead of just placing a traditional story on top of real-world surfaces, “Tendar” uses object recognition to actually make sense of the world and incorporate it into the game play. The game also uses facial recognition to sense emotions, detecting smiles, frowns and more. “The story is about you and what’s around you,” said Tender Claws co-founder Danny Cannizzaro.
Work on “Tendar” began as part of a Sundance project, which tried to pair up players to help the fish. “It started out more as a social AR experience,” said Tender Claws co-founder Samantha Gorman. Since then, it evolved to become more of a casual mobile experience, with the idea that players can check in on their fish for a few minutes, and then go about their day.
“Tendar” makes use of Google’s ArCore augmented reality platform for Android devices, as well as on-device object recognition and sentiment detection powered by Tensorflow machine learning — cutting-edge tech for a mobile game, and also a privacy-friendly approach that guarantees that your facial expressions aren’t uploaded to the cloud.
However, all of this technology is just the means to an end, said Cannizzaro. “We wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a tech demo.” That’s why the game’s guppy brings its own quirks to the table. For instance, it’s very good at recognizing dogs, but simply calls all other animals possums. “We can recognize a lot of objects, but there are a bunch of things that the guppy doesn’t care about,” he said.
And “Tendar” wouldn’t be a Tender Claws game if it didn’t have an odd twist. “As the guppy evolves, he becomes more and more verbal,” Cannizzaro explained. Snd as the virtual pet becomes smarter, it also develops its own personality — and ultimately becomes aware of the constraints of its world. “The guppy has a bit of an existential crisis,” Gorman said.
“Tendar” is Tender Claws’ first AR title, and it’s one of a number of titles looking to bring narrative experiences to the medium. Earlier this week, immersive media startup Within released its own first AR app, dubbed “Wonderscope.” Previewing that app in an interview with Variety, Within CEO Chris Milk said that creating for AR was very different from VR. “You have to build a story that can work in someone’s kitchen, in someone’s backyard, next to someone’s pool,” he said.
Cannizzaro echoed these remarks, saying that creators had a lot less control in AR than in VR. “It’s even harder to do narrative things in AR,” he said. “This is a very different animal.”