Augmented reality gaming apps turn your environment into virtual game

We've all seen them, and perhaps, even played them: shoot 'em up video games that allow you to get to different levels by killing the bad guys along the way.

But now, a different kind of gaming erases the cartoon world, and brings the video game right into your environment. 

The ABC2 News Investigative Team took a look at a handful of augmented reality shooting apps that allow you to be the shooter and anything around you, your target. It's a reality that one doctor says could be extremely harmful to the kids playing. 

With the augmented reality shooting game apps, you can load up, aim, and fire in your own surroundings; that's the basis of augmented reality gaming; turning your world into a virtual video game. For the shooting apps, it turns the people around you into your targets. 

Many are apps that you can download on your phone, and it didn't take long for us to download a whole list of free ones. 

Some of the shooting apps are more graphic than others. In one, the game turns your phone into a virtual scope that you are instructed to line up on your target, aim, and shoot to kill. The game then freeze frames an image of the "kill shot."

Dr. Barbara Howard is a faculty member and consultant in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Medstar Franklin Square Medical Center. She says no matter your age, with something so real it becomes difficult to separate your world from the virtual one. 

"I am horrified for everyone that these games even exist. Because children relate to games now, that is their reality-- it's not a virtual reality, it is their reality," Dr. Howard said. 

She says the freeze framed images of the "kill shots" in the game make it that much worse. 

"This is the most horrible message that you can send about your friends, is that they should somehow be dead at your hand. And so to treat that trivially devalues all of our humanity," she said. 

Todd Marks started Mindgrub Technologies seven years ago.

The company has since created a couple of augmented reality apps, one of them a wildly popular marketing campaign that allows you to 'photobomb' a picture with a virtual caveman. The other is an app called  'Tag: The Mobile Assassination Game,' an augmented reality shooting game without all of the blood and gore. 

"You have to track somebody on a map, and then you ultimately have to shoot them. There's a cross hair that shows if you get a kill shot or not when the picture is taken," Marks explained. 

Marks says the augmented reality shooting games haven't really taken off here in the U.S. as they have in other countries. He says many times, it's all in fun and games, but calls such a reality a teachable moment. 

"At the end of the day, if people can't separate out the real world from the virtual world, then there's problems there," he said. 

Dr. Howard says even if kids aren't talking about using shooting apps, that doesn't mean they're not doing it. She says often times, kids know the exact games that they shouldn't be playing, and says access to some of the graphic reality games is too easy. 

"It's horrifying. Horrifyingly realistic," she said as she looked at her own 'kill shot.'

ABC2 News Investigators reached out to some of the shooting games developers for comment along with some of the main carries for those apps; so far, no one has responded. 

Augmented reality isn't just gaming apps.

One group of entrepreneurs meets up monthly to take a deeper look at how the augmented reality industry could take them to the next level. They describe augmented reality as overlaying 3D computer images into your environment. 

"It's basically the next generation computer interface. Right now, we work on 2D monitors, in the future, we'll be able to break away from those monitors and use augmented reality interfaces," said Mark Shanks, who is part of the monthly meet up group. 

The group plans to use augmented reality for things like blueprints, new apps, and business plans. They say augmented reality groups have really taken off in cities like San Antonio and New York, and they hope to see a similar reaction in Baltimore. 

"People know it as the digital lines that go across the NFL field. That is essentially augmented reality," Marks said. "Where we play, we play in interactive kiosks, Lego, augmented reality experiences. And also doing some training where you can wear AR glasses and then see digital content over your field of vision."

Marks says Mindgrub Technologies is currently working on a new app where employees at doctor's offices could virtually pull up your information as you walk in the door.