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Virtual world fits on a smartphone

It will soon be possible to inhabit a virtual world, even while out and about in the real one.

US computer game company Artificial Life has announced that it will launch a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) for third generation (3G) phones before the end of 2005.

Currently untitled, the game will let players assume a virtual persona and travel through a futuristic cityscape, the company says. They will be able to chat and interact with computer-controlled characters as well as other human players and tackle puzzles that can be solved more easily through cooperation.

PC multiplayer games are already extremely popular and games like EverQuest, World of Warcraft and Star Wars Galaxies can have tens of thousands of players logged in at any one time. Enthusiasts will often spend hundreds of hours immersed in these complex virtual communities, customising their characters and building up relationships with other players.

Hybrid reality

The rampant success of MMORPGs has already spawned pared-down versions for conventional cellphones. Danish company Watagame, for example, offers a popular game for standard cellphones called Era of Eidolon.

CEO of Watagame, Henrick Riis, says the more powerful 3G phones and related networks - which can transfer data at hundreds rather than tens of kilobytes per second - will allow the emergence of increasingly complex multiplayer games.

He expects future mobile MMORPGs to incorporate location-based phone technology and to blend real video footage with computer graphics as handsets get more powerful.

"There will be a hybrid between reality and the real world," Riis told New Scientist. "You could do some really cute stuff using augmented reality."

Dating tool

Such a futuristic mobile game was recently developed by researchers at the University of Singapore. They built a version of the classic arcade game Pac-Man with 3D graphics superimposed over real city streets.

In the meantime, Artificial Life hopes its mobile multiplayer game will provide a popular way of meeting new people and even perhaps a novel dating tool.

"The future for mobile entertainment and games lies in this kind of sophisticated, massive multi-player games," says CEO of Artificial Life, Eberhard Schoenebur. "This is what the 3G mobile carriers need to attract customers."

The game will run on 3G phones equipped with the Java J2ME software engine. It will use a core software engine developed by Artificial Life called the Distributed Smart Engine Mobile Platform.

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