Award-winning locative health game Heartlands highlights mobile's positive potential

Add a heart rate monitor to GPS and you've got a solution to obesity

Award-winning locative health game Heartlands highlights mobile's positive potential
| Heartlands

Talk to people who make mobile games and there'll be plenty of hot air concerning the technicalities of 3D graphics or overcoming the limitations of numberpad controls.

All complicated stuff for sure, but what you're much less likely to end up discussing is how to use the features inherent to your phone – the fact it's always with you and it's what you use to communicate with your friends – in the context of games.

Of course, the problem isn't just a lack of imagination. Handset compatibility, as well as dealing with players on different operators, high data charges and how to handle in-game versus out-of-game time are just some of the barriers.

These are some of the reasons why, when it comes to exploring the potential of such experiences, the trailerblazers often come from outside the ranks of commercial game developers. Hence universities, research labs, theatre groups and new media combos are currently in the vanguard.

As an example, check out the location-based game Defenders of Design that people were playing at last week's Connecting 07 conference in San Francisco.

Another company working in the field is Active Ingredient, a Nottingham-based outfit, which recently won the Nokia Ubimedia Mindtrek Award for its game Heartlands ('Ere Be Dragons).

Using a GPS-equipped smartphone and heart rate monitor (attached to your forefinger), Heartlands maps your physical movement in the real world onto a virtual equivalent as shown on the mobile screen, with the game's landscape changing depending on your heart rate. Within the optimum range for your age, the pathway consists of green grass and blossoming flowers but if it's too low the path turns to a desert littered with skulls and cactus.

Your goal is to keep your heart rate within a healthy range as you move around your locale and so score points. More generally, the aim of the game is to encourage people to explore their surroundings and learn about their own health in the process.

Rachel Jacobs, one of the people behind Active Ingredient, says the hardest part of making the game involved the heart rate monitor.

"The initial research into how to get the heart rate data into an open platform that we could then use within the game was tough," she reveals. "We're still battling with the best way to manage different sensors on mobile devices to make it easy to use, as well as being robust and cross platform."

Such problems mean Heartlands isn't widely available, let alone a commercial release.

"At the moment the technology is bespoke," Jacobs explains. "The game works on Windows Mobile and currently uses the HP mscape player but we're looking at making this much simpler to set up, as well as potentially building a version to work on Symbian."

So she's positive that, in time, as plug-in sensors such as heart rate monitors (not to mention GPS itself) become standard, the market for this type of games could quickly expand.

"Pervasive or locative gaming is engaging enough [that] it could make it into the mainstream, always assuming the hardware becomes more robust," she says. "I also think it has the potential to attract those groups such as girls, women and old people who are increasingly being reached by mobile gaming but who aren't the traditional audience.

As for Active Ingredient's future projects, it's working on using GPS to enable people to see films made in the location in which they're standing. It's also continuing to refine Heartlands ('Ere Be Dragons) and hopes to extend the multiplayer version of the game so you can connect to Google Earth to play against friends, as well as store and share the journeys you've made.

We'll obviously keep monitoring its progress.