Appblaster: Explosive Fun Or Expensive Dumb?

We’ve known about the AppBlaster for some time now, but last week, one landed on my desk. Armed only with an iPhone 3GS, I set to seeing whether a plastic AR gun could really make my real world shooting dreams come true. I can recall reading in the late ‘90s about the Virtuality system -- a line of arcade virtual reality machines that were all set to revolutionise gaming and, indeed perhaps reality as we knew it. It sounded very cool, very engaging -- exactly what a games market oversaturated with Lara Croft needed.

The reality was, sadly, a little different; Virtuality sunk quickly, but the VR concept resurfaced a few years back thanks to Augmented Reality. The hype was much the same, and even I’d have to admit that there is some utility in things like Layar. When the AppBlaster first came to my attention, I marked it down as something to keep an eye on, should it ever make it to Australia.

Then last week, a package arrived on my desk with the AppBlaster gun inside. It’s being distributed locally by GadgetKing, and should be on sale for $49.95 in Kmart, Australian Geographic, Myer and online stores.

To put it politely, nearly $50 is a lot to pay for a plastic gun, especially when I can download AR apps that’ll work just fine without needing the gun itself. Still, undaunted, I set to testing the system.

First impressions are that it’s definitely a kid’s toy, and by that I mean it’s clipped into its box by some stupidly strong cable ties. Sorry shoplifters; you’ll not be able to rip this one out easily, but that equally applies to any customers as well. The gun itself comes in three parts; the main sub-machinegun styled part, an optional rifle stock if you like that kind of thing and a holder for your iPhone or iPod Touch. Not every single iPhone or iPod Touch, though; you’ll need at least a 3GS or 4th Generation iPod Touch or better, same as with most other AR applications. For testing purposes, I used an iPhone 3GS.

The 3GS has one setup advantage; while other models require an additional supplied insert within the holder, the 3GS can just sit within it, according to the instructions. The inserts are supplied, but annoyingly the applications aren’t -- you’ve got to download them from iTunes, and only one of them is a free application. If ever there was a case for a redeemable code to be included in the box, a fifty dollar plastic gun should be it, but unless you only want to play Alien Attack, you’ll have to shell out for additional games. At the moment, that’s only two additional games -- Tin Can Alley and Pull.

I tested with Alien Attack, and while the AR parts of it work just about as well as any other AR game I’ve ever played -- which is to say that it’s all too easy to spin around a lot and fall over dizzy -- there’s a few practical realities that you’ll have to face when using it with the gun. For a start, spinning around in your living room while clicking a gun is a great way to freak out your cats, as I discovered. Moreover, the design of the gun, where two triggers correspond to soft pads that touch the ‘fire’ part of the screen partly obscure what you’re doing all the time. In other words, this is a game that’s easier to play without the gun!

An Alien in my kitchen. I'm tempted to let him stay.

It may also be a quirk of using a 3GS, but I found that the orientation of the phone meant that the volume controls rested on the base of the phone holder. Tilt the phone up rapidly (which you need to do to reload) and it's easy for the volume to dip quickly. It’s sealed in its case, so putting the volume back up again quickly is no trivial matter.

Finally, there’s the issue of what happens when your iPhone rings. To say that you look a little daft holding a gun up to your head sideways is perhaps an understatement.

I had high hopes for the AppBlaster, but they were quashed all too quickly. It’s an idea that could be fun -- but currently, especially with the lack of available software, it’s just too much money for too little ongoing fun.