Pico Safari: Active Gaming in Integrated Environments

With the recent release of Pokemon Go, I’m posting my presentation notes from for designing a similar game called Pico Safari in collaboration with Lucio Gutierrez, Garry Wong, and Calen Henry in late 2009. The concept of virtual creatures in the real world follows so nicely from the technological affordances of the past few years, with ARG-enabling technologies in our phone and the evergreen motivation of “collecting stuff” (Remember victorian-era insect collecting?).

The talk below was presented at SDH-SEMI 2011, earning the Ian Lancashire Student Promise award.


Good morning. Today I’m here to share a fun project called Pico Safari.


Pico Safari is a virtual treasure hunt where users will collect digital creatures, named Picos, in the real world. This is accomplished using internet-connected, location-aware mobile devices. I’ll be sharing our finding on this curious game of ours: describing the novel way that such a game is approached, the technical considerations involved with designing such a tool, and the social implications of applying a virtual lens to the physical world.

Artificial experiences subtly change the way we feel, perceive, interpret, and even describe our “real” experiences.

-David Rokeby, “The Construction of Experience : Interface as Content”, 1998

I want to start with David Rokeby, a Canadian interactive artist. Rokeby was an early artist exploring the possibilities for adding virtual extensions to people’s realities, with projects such as Very Nervous System, a generative music installation that was built from the physical movements of its audience. In Constructing Experience, Rokeby wrote that “artificial experiences subtly change the way we feel, perceive, interpret, and even describe our “real” experiences.”

Though the specifics of Pico Safari are quite different, in a way we took a similar path, taking the “real” and augmenting it with the artificial in a way that directly affects how we view the world around us. Let me explain.

Pico Safari


This is a Pico.

Picos are friendly, eclectic creatures. They don’t have a home of their own, so they’ve decided to occupy ours.

Has anybody ever seen a Pico in the wild? No?

Unfortunately, they can’t be seen by the human eye. Luckily, with the right technology, we can take a peek at their hidden existence in our world. Picos are friendly, playful and, if you get close enough, you can even catch them.

This is the crux of Pico Safari: you’re a player exploring the world, tracking down and catching Picos. You do this through the lens of a smartphone, adding an imagery layer on top of the real one that is seen through your device’s camera.

The game incorporates two major components: a website and mobile application.

The website is where players can manage their profiles, search for desired new Picos, and communicate with other players. There is also a leaderboard, introducing a competitive element among players.


Meanwhile, the mobile application allows users to look up information regarding Pico while they are on the go, navigate to the creatures, and capture them when they are close enough.image12.png

Capturing Picos requires users to physically visit the real-world location it lives in and capture an image of it. When the users face the direction of the Pico, the image of the Pico will be overlaid onto the phone’s camera image. To add a level of achievement to the act of capturing Picos, Picos are not immediately visible to the user, at least not fully. They show up in a greyscale, slightly faded version. Once a user catches them, the Pico shows up in its full glorious color. I have to say, the experience the artificial Pico around you slowly blooming in this way as you make catches is quite fulfilling.


Pico Safari combines the pleasure of exploring one’s surroundings, finding and collecting items, and physical activity. While the game can be played alone, it’s a lot more satisfying to play with others. Trudging through the Edmonton snow with colleagues, chasing professors as they raced each other to catch Picos. On my way to this conference, I had a chance to test it with my young nephew, who excitedly started tapped the screen to show where he wants to go.  What you see in games like ours is a strong potential in engagement.

We have our tradition information management environments, those of the screen or of the page, and breaking free from them to seek information in physical space seems to increase one’s alertness and enjoyment of the task.



Pico Safari combines alternate and augmented reality in what we refer to as AARG (Augmented Alternate Reality Gaming). It’s characters and elements exist in a virtual place, but mapped onto and occupying real world locations.

Augmented reality is a way of augmenting imagery of reality with digital information.


It has a fairly long history of industry uses, such as in medicine. Recent advances in consumer technology have allowed it to be used in novel, more esoteric ways.


So, here’s augmented reality in the nineties. We have this cool guy wearing cool glasses starting at his monitor.


Meanwhile, here we have augmented reality in 2011. This is the Nintendo 3DS, which came out last month. It has a 3D camera, and a gyroscope for measuring movement in 3-dimensional space. The system comes with a series of special cards that, when viewed through the lens of the system camera, show various 3D models standing on them. In the short time that the system has been out, and we’ve seen players have a lot of fun with this….


…. creating a giant outdoor card in a city in Japan, and even…


… Tattooing the card on their wrist.


Pico Safari isn’t just augmented reality.

It’s also an example of alternate reality gaming. Alternate reality games (ARGs) are games that take reality and blend it with addition meaning through narratives and interaction (Martin and Chatfield 2006). They take the everyday experience and make it into a game. Differing from traditional gaming, an ARG’s location is “unclear or unlimited”, its sessions blended with ordinary life, and its play occupying a strange social dynamic with its players (Montola 2005).

So, where augmented reality is about objects, alternate reality is about stories.

Pico Safari holds its root in geocaching. Geocaching is a global game where people hide little treasures in public places, and then share the coordinates along with hints for finding the treasure or sometimes an accompanying story. Others then go out and find the little treasures, called caches. A common type of cache is one where you take something out, and while leaving something themselves.

In a study of geocaching users, Kenton O’Hara (2008) offers a series of motivators that match remarkable well with what we found to be the compelling factors of Pico Safari:

  • Social Walking
  • Discovering and exploring places
  • Collecting
  • Profile and statistics
  • First to find: Competition and urgency
  • Challenge: Individual and social aspects

OHara notes, “as an activity, geocaching was more than just the sum of the individual caching experiences. For many of the participants, there was a collecting ethos that was a significant part of the experience.”

Sherman, in a 2004 book on geocaching offers the following reasons for participating is such outdoor geoservice gaming: “health, family togetherness, education, natural beauty, challenge, discovery and fun”. 

In creating Pico Safari, we tried to use the motivation of collecting to tap into these benefits but to do so in a more easily scalable, fully virtual way.



Why now? Pico Safari was enabled by a rapid number of technical advancements in consumer devices. (2016 note: this part of the talk captures the novelties of 2010).

Necessary tools to make it happen include cameras, GPS, and compasses on our smartphones. Supplemental technologies improving the experience in newer phones include Advanced GPS, internet-connectivity, and larger screens.

The first part of the formula is the camera. With the camera and screen, you can run a feed of what is in front of the camera to the screen…


Making it as if you were looking through the camera.

The next step is the built-in accelerometer, which understands where the device is in relation to the ground. Since it knows which way the device is being tilted, you can then guess where the ground is in relation to the device, and you can modify anything you display on the screen to stay in relation to the ground if you move the phone around.

The last part is positioning users in 3-dimensional space. Once this is done, you can place other objects in space relative to yourself. This is done with two parts.


First, GPS (or more appropriately Advanced GPS) is used to find where you are. This uses a combination of cell-phone tower triangulation, Wi-fi network lookups, and finally old-fashioned global positioning to find where you are. It should be noted that GPS uses like Pico Safari, requiring a high degree of accuracy, were not possible until 2000, when the American Military turned off ‘Selective Visibility’ scrambling for consumer devices.


Once the phone knows where you are, it also needs to know where you’re looking. This is made possible using the built-in compass that the T-Mobile G1 and iPhone 3GS popularized in cellphones a few years ago.

Newer devices have one more feature that is potentially useful to games like Pico Safari: a gyroscope. The gyroscope allows the device to know your movement in 3D space, which is more accurate than continuously polling GPS.

Pico Safari works through an augmented reality browser called Layar. Note the use of the word browser, then because it works just like a web browser. In Layar as on the web, you first transmit a set of criteria about your state, a URI consisting of a domain, a path, parameters and information about your system. The server takes that response, processes it and sends back an appropriate response, and then the browser parses that response and displays it in an appropriate format. The main difference is the format in which that response takes. On the web you deal with HTML predominantly, Layar uses a standardized JSON response.

Issues and Future


The are a number of potential issues with the Pico Safari approach.  Many are technical, where seams can still show. While the quality of GPS has improved greatly in recent years, it can still be confused by large buildings or covered areas. Battery life is another issue. Because mobile phones are designed to conserve cycles, it means that they often don’t do high precision positioning until it’s asked for. This means that a user quickly loading up Pico Safari may not send exact coordinates, in a situation where exactness is important.

The greater issue with an augmented reality game like Pico Safari is social. It is not a familiar action. This is not necessarily bad of course: the novelty keeps you paying closer attention to your surroundings than is normally done. However, it means that the action works best when it is not supposed to be transparent or ubiquitous, or at least in the near future. A few months ago, I set up a script to take a photo every time I turned on my phone. I was curious about what my phone sees throughout my day. After forgetting about it, and recently rediscovering a folder with thirty thousand photos…. of the floor. You see floor tiles, sewer grates, tips left on pub tables and laptops on desks. Our devices point down; to bring them up to eye level and observe the world through them is an unfamiliar action.


Ultimately, I would warn against overgeneralizing the example of Pico Safari. It is a game and it engages as a game. That is to say, it works when the action of utilizing the augmented reality is intentional. One use is spatial education. As we were building Pico Safari, we built a simple adventure where Picos were historically themed (well, we gave them old-timey mustaches) and catching them would share bits of history about their neighborhood in Edmonton. The GRAND work group in Alberta is currently pursuing ways of making use of alternate reality gaming for education, though if my understanding is correct, they are minimizing the augmented reality aspect in order to increase accessibility to people without compatible devices.

Meanwhile, the barrier for developing augmented reality projects is lowering. We started off planning a game with highly specific server code, iPhone applications, and Android applications. During our development, software called Layar came out, simplifying our mobile needs by providing an API for both iOS and Android, letting us focus on our server backend. Since then, things are growing easier.

Layar has grown as the defacto standard browser for augmented reality. As it improves, the possibilities for content creators broaden. Code libraries that simplify development are being improved, and services like the code-free Layer creator are slowly popping up.


Pico Safari is whimsical and engaging, but it remains to be seen how much user enjoyment is inherent to the approach and how much is due to the novelty. Provided that the engagement of the active player is sustainable, the future of Pico Safari is in exploring the learning possibilities for such an engagement.

Before I end, I have a very special surprise for SDH-SEMI. I’ve written a special conference version of Pico Safari. It removes accounts and is mobile only, and so that all of you with a data plan and smartphone can give it a try. Download Layar from the App Store or Android Market,  go to (2016 note: this link is likely useless today), enter your name and compete for the high score on the SDH-SEMI leaderboard.

You get more points for catching Picos sooner so go out and get them first!



Martin, Adam, and Tom Chatfield. “Introduction.” 2006 Alternate Reality Games White Paper. Ed. Adam Martin. 2006. 6-7.

Montola, Markus. “Exploring the Edge of the Magic Circle: Defining Pervasion Games.” CD-ROM Proceedings of Digital Arts and Culture. Copenhagen: 1-3 December 2005.

O’Hara, Kenton. “Understanding Geocaching Practices and Motivations”. HP Labs, 2008.

Sherman, E. 2004. Geocaching: Hike and Seek with Your GPS. Apress, Berkeley.

Sielhorst, T.,  Feuerstein, M.,  Navab, N. 2008. Advanced Medical Displays: A Literature Review of Augmented Reality.

One thought on “Pico Safari: Active Gaming in Integrated Environments”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s