Note: A lot of readers in asked for a continuation of last week's primer on BioShock: Infinite. I'm planning on doing that, but I've decided to delay "Part II" until I've played the game. Expect to see it in the near future.
This year's SXSW Gaming Expo turned out to be an interesting gauge of what companies want to sell to the "gamer" demographic. There's were things that I expected to find - the new Xi3 Piston, for instance, as well as various computer accessories and "geek" apparel - but out on the periphery there were several organizations whose connection to videogames was tangential at best. The Boy Scouts of America touted their new game design badge, the Air National Guard attracted potential recruits with an Ace Combat 5 setup and NASA funneled gamers outside to check out a life-size model of their new James Webb Space Telescope.
Then there was TrackingPoint, a company that walks the increasingly thin line between the gun industry and the game industry.
TrackingPoint's booth wasn't off to the side, but right in the middle of the action. It was a short stroll past the stage where Jenova Chen and the The Walking Dead team talked about developing compelling narratives. Close enough to the Piston booth you could smell the machine-generated steam. At first I thought I was looking at a very expensive peripheral, something like a realistic version of Big Buck Hunter but with high grade sniper rifles. On one side the booth was the normal thing you'd see at SXSW, a collection of iPads and iPhones, but on the other were two stations with rifles and screens that streaming the view from the scope. Gamers lined up for a turn at the stations, sighting down the monstrous optics to dry fire at a printout of mechs tromping through a ruined building.
They weren't peripherals, they were rifles. Very real, very advanced, very expensive rifles. TrackingPoint is an applied technology company that manufactures the PGF, the Precision Guided Firearm, and it's probably the most impressive and disturbing civilian rifle I've ever seen. In short, the PGF is an integrated system that allows long-range rifles to benefit from fighter jet lock and launch technology, allowing novice shooters to make shots at 500 to 1,200 yards with less than an hour of training. More than a rifle, it's a fully-integrated system that includes a custom rifle, optics, a guided trigger, laser reference, software and even its own brand of precision ammunition. To use the PGF, the shooter goes through a unique target acquisition and firing process. When he finds the target, he presses a button to electronically "tag" it with a red dot, which is a visual indication that the rifle's laser rangefinder has painted the target. Once tagged, the rifle's optics take pressure and temperature readings, and calculate ballistics like spin drift, the Coriolis effect and how much the shooter needs to lead the shot. As long as the shooter keeps his scope trained on the target, and the target moves less than ten miles an hour, the rifle will maintain its lock. The shooter then moves the reticle over the tag until the reticle turns red, and pulls the trigger - but the rifle only discharges when it calculates a firing solution. Essentially, the gun won't shoot unless it determines the shot will hit the target, meaning you can squeeze the trigger and float the reticle over the tag, letting it fire when it's in the right position. The scope can also stream video to an iPad, which TrackingPoint claims is useful for shooting instruction, father-son bonding and spotters. It also captures images, video and audio of the shot so you can upload your most impressive feats onto YouTube and social networks. Rifles start at $17,000 for a model that can shoot accurately to 800 yards - actually a good deal considering what high-end rifles usually cost and the amount of training it replaces - but the premium model costs somewhere in the mid $20,000 range and can drill targets at an incredible 1,200 yards. TrackingPoint envisions the product filling a role in the civilian market as a first-class tool for target shooters and hunters, not the military. In fact, to make training as easy as possible, they've developed an iPhone and Android app that trains you to use its unique system.
There are a few issues I have with the PGF in general, both as a product and how it's being marketed. First, I'll address the concerns I have as a gun owner and shooter: While I understand the appeal of being able to hit targets and wild game at ranges usually reserved for military snipers, there's something about the PGF that seems like cheating. Sure, homemade hunting videos are popular on the internet, but that's more about look what I did than look what my rifle did. All that technology takes away some of the man vs. nature appeal of hunting and man vs. physics appeal of nailing targets at extreme range. Also, I'm yet to be convinced the rifle works as infallibly as advertised. Videos of novices using the gun in an uncontrolled environment show misplaced tags and some other hiccups, but ultimately the rifle does help shooters hit targets they'd probably miss otherwise. If I were a big game hunter going after something that could easily crush my ribcage or tear into my intestines, this is probably the rifle I'd use. It seems like a good system with very narrow appeal - but it also scares the hell out of me. Visions of someone spending $20k, sniping a congressman and uploading the video to the internet keep floating around my brain.