CastAR: looking at the virtual through a different pair of glasses

There has been a lot of excitement about Oculus Rift (OR) over the last few months and how it could revolutionise immersive gameplay, including the potential it offers to SL (and vice-versa).

Now The Verge reports on another innovative development using a headset system called  CastAR, and augmented reality system aimed at the gaming market and formally announced at the 2013 Maker Faire in New York. Whether it might find a suitable use within Second Life remains to be seen. However, whether it does or doesn’t, it is a fascinating concept which could potentially bring the world of high-end, ultra-expensive augmented reality capabilities directly into the home (and workplace?) for a variety of uses.

Currently in the earliest stages of development, CastAR essentially projects virtual environments into the real world, where you can directly interact with them in a variety of ways. It is the brainchild of former Valve employees  Jeri Ellsworth, a hardware engineer, and programmer Rick Johnson. “Former” because they were let go by the company in February 2013, along with 23 other engineers, after spending a year on the project. However, not only did Gabe Newell, co-founder and Managing Director of Valve let Ellsworth and Johnson go – he gave them his blessings to take the idea and the associated IP with them (a remarkable move in itself).  Since then, they’ve founded their own company, Technical Illusions, and have been hard at work developing a system which, according to The Verge, they’ve already poured a better part of a year of their lives.

Conceptual art for the production CastAR glasses (image courtesy of Technical Illusions / The Verge)
Conceptual art for the production CastAR glasses (image courtesy of Technical Illusions / The Verge)

The system comprises a special pair of glasses which house a set of projectors which beam the image from your computer – such as a game – onto a retroreflective projector screen. A camera also built-in to the glasses sees infrared LEDs positioned around the edges of that projector screen, allowing the glasses to track the exact position of your head so that the software can adjust the 3D perspective in real-time. The result is the projection of images and objects from the computer as 3D objects which you can move around and examine.

This is in marked contrast to the likes of Oculus Rift, where images are displayed on screens within the headset. The result is that even on the small-scale prototype the team have so far developed, it is possible to move around the projected image and interact with it: Sean Hollister from The Verge demonstrated playing a Jenga-like game which allowed him to dismantle virtual towers of block using a hand-held wand. He was also able to demonstrate playing a two-player shoot-’em-up, with both players using the same retroreflective surface, but each seeing views unique to their relative position and head movement.

The initial CastAR prototype glasses shown at the 2013 Maker Faire
The initial CastAR prototype glasses shown at the 2013 Maker Faire (image courtesy of The Verge)

Right now, CastAR is in a very rudimentary stage of development, as indicated in the coverage found in The Verge, as are the potential uses for the system.  Ellsworth and Johnson have presented an early prototype of the system at the 2013 Maker Faire in New York,  where they have also been soliciting feedback on possible uses for CastAR.

One suggested idea would be to make the retroreflective surface room-sized, allowing for complete augmentation / immersion in  3D environment where one and not only look around, but also interact with the objects they find. Quite how this would be achieved is open to debate; redecorating an entire room as a holodeck environment isn’t something that is likely to be welcomed in the average home – although the potential for low-cost specialist environments might be another matter.

However, entire holorooms aren’t necessarily what Technical Illusions are considering. As The Verge states, the team are still very much open to idea, and while Rick Johnson “envisions little children filling their Tonka trucks with virtual sand; family board games; and incredible sessions of Dungeons & Dragons“, Jeri Ellsworth is quoted as saying, “I suspect we’re going to be very surprised about what people find fun in this space,”

One of the aims the team has is to keep overall retail cost of the unit low – around $200 once it is available on the market, largely thanks to their ability to use readily available components, and also in being able to design their own chips and code. To fund the project, the team plan to launch a kickstarter fundraiser in the near future, and will be making a Software Development Kit available to game-makers. However, the aim is very much to try to make the system a commercial product in its own right. This may start small, with simple games played on a small projection surface and a couple of headsets with control wands – but how far the system goes beyond that could be anyone’s guess.

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