Hands-on: Parrot AR.Drone

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Hands-on: Parrot AR.Drone
We've never written about the Parrot AR.Drone on our humble news site because we've yet to see its applications in the gaming space. Don't get us wrong -- it's as inherently awesome as you'd expect a hovering, camera-equipped drone (that's controlled by your iPhone!) to be. However, "random things that are awesome" doesn't really align with our editorial purview.

At GDC, Parrot went to great lengths to show off the gaming applications of the Drone. A representative presented two tech demos to us, both of which use the device's front-mounted camera to recognize "tags" in the environment, creating augmented reality overlays which allow the user to virtually interact with an object. In layman's terms: It recognizes predetermined patterns, and turns them into virtual targets, at which you can then shoot virtual bullets and missiles.
Before analyzing these tech demos, I should mention that flying the drone is extremely cool. There's a slight latency between the user's input and the device's motion -- to be expected, seeing as how these commands are sent to the Drone via a private Wi-Fi network the device creates. This small delay could present a roadblock to responsive, enjoyable gaming, but it's hardly noticeable when you're doing a bit of casual hovering.

The Drone's controls are all mapped to simple commands on the iPhone interface -- there are inputs which control altitude and rotation, and tilting the iPhone while pressing another input controls the Drone's actual movement. Though iPhone control is a huge draw for the device, I found myself wishing for actual tactile buttons. Still, the user needn't fear a gruesome crash should they accidentally input the wrong command -- the Drone is imbued with some impressive auto-stabilization technology.

Since the iPhone serves as the controller, video can streamed directly from the Drone's camera to the iPhone's screen. Unfortunately, there's another fraction of a second of latency in the video stream. Attempting to control the device while watching the iPhone feed and not looking at the Drone got a little disorienting, though I suppose more time behind the wheel could make the process more natural.

I got a pretty narrow vertical slice of the Drone's gaming capabilities. One tech demo I saw entailed a multiplayer dogfight, where one of the aforementioned "tags" (a green and orange-striped cylinder) was placed on top of a second, stationary Drone. When the tag enters your Drone's camera's view, you automatically start firing (virtual) bullets at it. If you keep it in your sights long enough, you can fire a (virtual) missile by pressing a button on your iPhone.

The second demo was basically a single-player version of the previous one, where a slightly larger tag is recognized by the camera and a virtual robot appears on the screen. You have to fire missiles at it with the push of a button while simultaneously avoiding the shots your enemy launches at you.

Neither of these demos were particularly thrilling. Perhaps the first one would have been a bit more enjoyable if the other Drone was being piloted by someone. That could probably lead to some pretty intense (albeit sloppily controlled) aerial stand-offs, provided you're ever in a room with two of these things at the same time.

The Parrot AR.Drone is one of those rare products who's merit is almost single-handedly determined by the price at which it's launched. I wish this wasn't so, but I couldn't help but gauge my interest in the device based solely on this metric. Should it launch for $50, it'll be a revolutionary device which every iPhone owner should own. At $100, it's more of a stretch -- a novelty item which virtual reality enthusiasts should purchase if they have the means. If it's $200, I cease to see the appeal.

That's an awfully blunt way of evaluating the product; especially since it's still basically in its infancy. According to Parrot, more than 400 developers have their hands on the AR.Drone SDK. If they can come up with some more compelling gaming applications for the vehicle, price might cease to be an object.

On the other hand, who cares about gaming? It's a hovering, auto-stabilizing spy drone you pilot with your telephone. That's sufficiently awesome in and of itself, right?
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