Back in May 2013, and courtesy of The Verge, I was able to report on the development of castAR, an Augmented Reality headset, a prototype of which made an appearance at the May 2013 Maker Faire in New York.
The project, initially started by Jeri Ellsworth and colleague Rick Johnson while both were employed by Valve, came about by accident. However, development work in-house at Valve came to an end in February 2013 when both Ellsworth and Johnson were let go by the company. But in a generous move, Gabe Newell, co-founder and Managing Director of Valve, gave them his blessings to take the idea and the associated IP with them.
As I reported back in May, convinced the idea had legs, Ellsworth and Johnson founded their own company, Technical Illusions, and have been hard at work developing things further.
The castAR system differs from the likes of Oculus Rift in that in its primary function is augmented reality, rather than immersive virtual reality. It projects images onto a retroreflective projector screen. A camera also built-in to the glasses tracks the exact position of your head so that the software can adjust the 3D perspective in real-time. The result is a holographic-like projection of images and objects from the computer as 3D objects which you can move around and examine.
At the time of the May 2013 Maker Faire, the team had managed to put together a very rough-and-ready prototype of the system, and have since been working to further refine the technology and the idea. In September, they were back in New York for another Maker Faire, where they were awarded blue and red ribbons with a win of Editors and Educators Choice. Buoyed by this, the team set-out to move ahead with their planned Kickstarter project in order to secure funding which would allow the work to continue and would hopefully see the system further refined, including the creation of a software development kit which might in turn help with adoption of the system.
The Kickstarter launched on October 14th, 2103 together with a video expanding on the idea and their plans. They’d hoped to raise $400,000 in a one-month period to November 14th, 2013.
As of October 18th, over $500,000 had been pledged by more than 2,000 people.
Interaction with the virtual projections can be achieved through both the use of traditional games controllers and joysticks, or via a dedicated “magic wand”. The latter allows for a wide range of interactions, with Sean Hollister of The Verge using it to play a virtual game of Jenga. Other elements, such as an RFID grid and “bases” which can be attached to physical objects allows such objects to be used within the virtual projection, with movement of such objects interactively plotted, etc.
As with Oculus Rift, uses for the system are potentially huge. Not only could castAR be used for computer games and virtual worlds, it might equally be used for playing board games (with players sitting anywhere in the world), or for it to be used in diverse fields as research, data visualisation work, 3D design, virtual worlds and so on.
For those wishing to experience more of an immersive, Occulus-like virtual reality experience, such as when using castAR in a virtual environment like Second Life, Technical Illusions are developing what they call the “AR & VR Clip on”. This allows users to dispense with the retroreflective surfaces and experience images projected onto a pair of screens, the result matching that of the Oculus Rift.
Alongside the Kickstarter launch, Jeri Ellsworth released a very personal video on the project, which includes a description of the accident that lead her to the idea.
I was trying to solve this issue with virtual reality and augmented reality and near-eye displays. If you have a display near your eyes, it’s often stressful for some people and causes headaches and nausea and stuff like that. So I built this bench rig, which had a projector, had a beam splitter, and I put the beam splitter in backwards. so instead of projecting the image into my eye, it was projecting out into the room, and there was this piece of retroreflective material in the room that picked-up this image, and when I looked through the system I saw this amazing, beautiful image.
And I thought that’s interesting. Why am I seeing an image far out into the room? So I tracked it down, I started looking at … and I’m, “Wow! This retroreflective material solves a tonne of issues!” So if I can get all the optics off of the user’s head, and then we flip it all inside out and we project it all out into the world, like on a mat that you roll out onto the table, it makes a very comfortable experience where your eyes are focusing at a natural distance, and your eyes are converging at a natural distance and your muscle memory for your focus is at that distance, so there’s no conflicts like with these near-eye displays.
As a result of this discovery, Ellsworth set about creating an early test rig, which she called the “head crab” – and things progressed from there.
For those wishing to be a part of the castAR story, various incentives are offered to encourage pledges, comprising a series of castAR kits and a range of optional extras which backers can select as a part of making their pledge. Kit prices start at $189 + shipping for a starter pack (the “finished” castAR glasses and a 1×1 metre retroreflective surface) and run through to $10,000 for those who want a custom-built prototype, rather than waiting until 2014. The optional add-ons make it easy for people to put together their own custom package.
It’s still too early to say where it might lead, or when a commercial system might appear – although technical illusions are pointing to September 2014 as the time they expect to ship pledge packs to their Kickstarter backers. As noted above, getting a development kit together which can be shipped to interested software developers is a first order of business. However, the hope is that once the system proceeds to a commercial footing, the cost per unit will be around $200.
- Technical Illusions website
- castAR: the most versatile AR & VR system – Project Kickstarter
- castAR VR / AR System – The 18 Month Story – Jeri Ellsworth, YouTube
- castAR: looking at the virtual through a different pair of glasses – this blog, May 2013
All images courtesy of Technical illusions, unless otherwise indicated.