CastAR closes, IP for sale?

The CastAR dream: a slimline, lightweight set of glasses capable of projecting interactive 3D images onto a retro-reflective surface. Credit: Technical Illusions / CastAR

Augmented reality headset maker, CastAR (formerly Technical Illusions), and which I’ve been following and reporting on in this blog, has apparently closed its doors.

The company first came to prominence when the system – designed to use a glasses-like headset to project holographic images onto a retro-reflective surface and / or before the wearer’s eyes via a “VR clip-on”  – was shown at the 2013 Maker Faire in New York.

At that time, the idea was very much fledgling and more spirit gum, soldering, tape and wires than it was a commercial venture – but that was enough to convince the pair behind the system, Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson they had a potential product on their hands, so they went ahead with a Kickstarter campaign to raise US $400,000 to start development in earnest – and ended up raising over a million.

The Head Crab – Jeri Ellworths’ initial approach to what became CastAR. Image courtesy of Jeri Ellsworth

The system, called CastAR due to its primary function of projecting images onto that retro-reflective surface, actually came about by accident. In 2012, Ellsworth was working on another project at Gabe Newall’s Valve when she accidentally found she could create holographic-like images on the surface.

The potential of the idea excited her and (then) fellow co-worker Johnson, so they started delving into the idea. Then, in February 2013, they were among a group of staff let go by the company – and in a generous move, Newall allowed them to take the IP for the CastAR system with them, even though almost the entire development up to that point had been made on Valve’s time and with Valve’s resources.

 

The Development Kit / Kickstarter version of the CastAR headset. Credit: CastAR

From here, the story does suffer the hiccups. The Kickstarter raised US $1 million, enough to fund development of an initial headset system, but it was not entirely what Ellsworth and Johnson were hoping it would be. There were delays,  funding seemed (from the outside) to be slow in coming in and delivery dates for the initial Kickstarter headset got pushed back, although there was sufficient for the company to establish operations, hire a CEO (initially David Henkel-Wallace), refine the headset design, develop games to run on it.

But the company kept doing the rounds of VR / AR shows and the like, garnering publicity, generating interest and towards the end 2015, secured US $15 million in funding. The majority of this came from Playground Global, co-founded by Andy Rubin of Android Inc. fame, and Rubin persuaded Ellsworth and Johnson to back to basics and design the system they wanted.

Playing a projected game using CastAR (simulation). Credit: Technical Illusions / CastAR

As a result, in 2016, the company announced a significant change in direction. The US $1 million raised via the Kickstarter was refunded, together with a promise all backers would receive a “consumer” version of the headset,  CastAR hired talent to open its own mixed reality studio in Salt Lake City and acquired entire Eat Sleep Play development team, responsible for the Twisted Metal series and God of War. All of this was done with the aim of developing a complete consumer package – headset, controllers, game surfaces and games – which would be low-cost and playable “right out of the box”.  2016 saw LucasArts chief Darrell Rodriguez take over as CEO, with former Disney executive Steve Parkis as its president and chief operating officer.

Now, according to an article appearing in Polygon on Monday, June 26th, and since widely circulated in the tech media, CastAR has closed its doors with up to 70 people being laid off. There has been no official statement on the matter from either CastAR – the corporate website continues to reference a consumer product launch in 2017, although it doesn’t appear to have been updated since around the start of the year – nor Playground Global, despite attempts by a number of outlets to secure a comment. However, the Polygon piece suggests the reason for the closure is Playground Global’s refusal to provide further funding for the venture after CastAR failed to obtain investment from other sources.

The CastAR headset and “wand” hand controller as they looked in November 2016. Credit: CastAR

Following the story breaking, Polygon later updated their article to reflect sources stating that a small team has been retained by CastAR to oversee attempts to sell the company’s IP. But again, there has yet to be an official statement from CastAR.

This might be seen as a blow to the fortunes of AR. However, as innovative as CastAR was (and as much as I found their approach fascinating), the system took a markedly different approach to AR / MR than is the case with the likes of Qualcomm (see here) and others, simply by its reliance on a retro-reflective surface. While the latter is well suited to gaming, and the company tried to suggest it could have practical applications through their promotional videos, it still might have been seen as a limiting factor in the system’s broader appeal.

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VR and AR catch-up

Oculus Touch: shipping December 6yh, price: US $199.00
Oculus Touch: shipping December 6th, price: US $199.00

It’s been a while since I’ve covered anything in the VR and AR markets, so here’s a very quick catch-up on the main products I have been following on-and-off in these pages, and about which I’d been meaning to write about during October / November.

Oculus Rift: Touch and AWS

In October 2016, Oculus Rift opened the doors to pre-orders of the Touch, their hand controller system, due to start shipping on December 6th, 2016. The Touch price point is US $199.00 (approx. £189 / 187 / AU $265), which includes of Toybox, the multiplayer sandbox application designed specifically to show-off the controllers, and five Touch-ready game tiles.

Alongside of the Touch, Oculus announced additional Rift sensors would also be shipping on December 6th, 2016, at a price of US $79 (approx. £62.55 / 74.18 / AU $106.47), offering similar room-sized scanning capability as the HTC Vive. A new earbud system, designed to replace the earphones on the headset for a more immersive sound experience, was also made available for pre-order (again shipping on December 6th, at a cost of $49 (approx. £38.81 / 46 / AU $66).

Oculus Rift
Oculus Rift

As a rough-and-ready price comparison. The HTC Vive, which includes a headset with front-mounted “see-through” camera, two controllers and two room sensors for tracking) is prices at about US $800. The Oculus Rift (which ships with one sensor) + touch + and additional sensor comes to roughly US $877, with some recommending two additional sensors offer optimal scanning bringing that total to US $956. Obviously, the latter package also includes a hefty amount of additional software, including Toybox.

On November 10th 2016, Oculus VR confirmed they were lowering the minimum specification for hardware needed to run an Oculus VR experience  comfortably, as a result of something called Asynchronous Spacewarp, or AWS.  The announcement came with a long and involved description of what AWS is, which the press announcement summarised down to a TL;DR summary:

Oculus is releasing a new technology aimed at reducing system hardware requirements while maintaining content quality across a wider array of hardware. Asynchronous Spacewarp (ASW) is a frame-rate smoothing technique that almost halves the CPU/GPU time required to produce nearly the same output from the same content. Like Asynchronous Timewarp (ATW), ASW is automatic and enabled without any additional effort from developers.

In other words, and to summarise the summary, AWS allows VR experiences remain fluid to the eye by “making up” the “in-between” animation frames, reducing the demand of continued, heavy processing on the part of the CPU / GPU.

On the left, a game with every frame directly rendered at 45fps by the GPU. On the right, the same game using software AWS to render some of the
On the left, a game with every frame directly rendered at 45fps by the GPU. On the right, the same game using software AWS to render some of the “in-between” animation frames, where the direction of the fox’s motion is “known”. Credit: TechRadar

This is turn means that “lower end” systems can now in theory run VR experiences which incorporate AWS. Although it has to be said that “lower end” must be approached with something of a caveat: it reduces the GPU requirement from a minimum of a NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD Radeon R9 290 and  Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater to a NVIDIA GTX 960 / AMD Radeon RX 470 or greater and Intel i3-6100 / AMD FX4350 or greater – which some might consider a small move of the needle.

Finally, Oculus VR is working on an untethered version of the Rift headset, currently called Santa Cruz. It appeared in prototype form in October 2016, and includes a built-in processing system mounted with the headset, removing the need for it to be connected to a PC. Initial reports from those able to try the prototype were mixed, with several reporters noting their evaluations were carefully controlled, and that Oculus engineers were evasive when asked about the actual processing power and performance of the headset.

HTC Vive

On November 11th, 2016, HTC announced pre-orders were open for a “tether-less” kit for the Vive headset, produced by TPCAST, a Vive X Accelerator invested company. The kit comprises a wireless relay unit and battery pack to power the headset, bot of which attach to the headset harness, removing the need to connect it to a PC via USB cables. In difference to claims that wireless is “unsuitable” for VR due to factors such as latency, TPCAST is said to have no “noticeable difference” when using it with a Vive headset when compared to using the headset tethered directly to a PC.

The TPCAST wireless kit mounted on an HTC Vive
The TPCAST wireless kit mounted on a HTC Vive. Credit: HTC / TPCast

Continue reading “VR and AR catch-up”

CastAR announce US $15 million funding

The CastAR banner
The castAR website banner

CastAR, formerly Technical Illusions, the company behind the augmented reality castAR headset with a VR capability and which I’ve been covering in this blog, has announced the completion of a US $15 million round of funding.

Former Valve employees  Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson founded the company in 2013 after being let go by Valve – and given the blessings of Gabe Newell, Valve’s founder and Managing Director, to take the IP used within castAR with them.

Since then, they’ve been developing the headset with the aim of producing a low-cost, self-contained AR system initially aimed at games and entertainment, but with a wide range of other potential applications – including VR, through the addition of a clip-on that allows for wide field-of-view VR experiences.

The Development Kit / Kickstarter version of the CastAR headset
The Development Kit / Kickstarter version of the castAR headset (image via Engadget)

The early stages of the company’s work was largely funded by a Kickstarter campaign in late 2013 which raised just over US $1 million. This provided sufficient capital to get the company running, albeit on the small scale, and in October 2014, they were able to start shipping the first of the Developer / Kickstarter backer kits whilst also relocating from Seattle, Washington, to Mountain View, California, a move overseen by the newly hired CEO, David Henkel-Wallace.

However, fulfilling the obligations of the Kickstarter campaign has been difficult – so far the company has only been able to produce and ship around 1/3 of the pledged headsets. The Series A round of funding, which has been chiefly backed by Playground Global, co-founded by Andy Rubin of Android Inc. fame, will enable the company to take on staff, complete its Kickstarter obligations and lay the foundations for the future.

The news of the investment round was announced to Kickstarter backers in a personal note from Jeri and Rick, which reaffirms their commitment to their original supporters, reading in part:

What does this mean for Kickstarter? Delivery! We remain committed, as we always have, to giving our Kickstarter backers a high quality product and experience. Of course with only nine people and an ambitious engineering plan, it clearly has taken us longer than we had planned, but among other things, this investment will make sure we complete the Kickstarter in the next several months.

We recognise every day that we would not be where we are at without the support of you, our backers. You believed in us when we put together a video showing a product of 90% hot glue, some friends using it, and some crude software. That support reassured us that we weren’t crazy, and it helped send investors the message that there is significant excitement for castAR.

The conceptualised castAR production headset and VR clip-on system (image: Technical Illusions)
The conceptualised castAR production headset and VR clip-on system (image: CastAR)

The slightly ungainly – at least in its development form – headset uses projectors mounted on it to bounce light of a retro-reflective surface in an effect Ellsworth came across by accident, setting her with the initial idea for the system. The light from the projectors is delivered back to the wearer’s eyes through active-shutter glasses which also track the user’s position, allowing the projection to be updated in real-time.

Projections seen when wearing the headset appear as holographic elements directly in front of the user’s field of vision, which can then be manipulated via a “wand” hand controller.  Because the retro-reflective material bounces light back to its origin, multiple users can use the same surface simultaneously without experiencing any interference from other headset, allowing multiple headsets to be used in the same physical space for game play or other activities.

A key aim of the headset is to be affordable, ease-to-use system which users of all ages can immediate grasp conceptually and use with ease.

“When we say a consumer product, we mean a consumer price point,”  Henkel-Wallce told GamesIndustry.biz when discussing the funding announcement. “The Oculus headset is only a few hundred dollars but then you need a $1000 PC to run your games. That’s not a consumer product, that’s not something you’re giving to your kids.

Making CastAR fun, affordable and self-contained is key to the unit's success
Daivd Henkel-Wallace: Making CastAR fun, affordable and self-contained seen as key to the unit’s success

“Our vision is that Christmas day Grandma has bought these for the kids, they tear open the paper, they open the box, they’re eight and ten years old, they put down the game board and within a minute they’re playing. That’s where we want to get to.”

It was this approach which attracted Playground Global’s interest, with Rubin stating, “I was really intrigued by [their] approach to tackling the problem of how to drive mainstream adoption of AR. They’re the only company I found to be simplifying the utility and application of augmented and virtual reality technology into a fun, accessible, and portable system that will wow kids and adults alike.”

The company’s change in name was also announced alongside of the funding news, and is seen as a natural step for the fledgling company, as Rick Johnson explained when writing to Kickstarter backers:

One observation we’ve made along the way is that people kept calling us “castAR” as a company name. We used the financing as an excuse to change our official company name to castAR.

The Series a funding round comes on top of an undisclosed seed round of funding for the company. Together these demonstrate that castAR is a viable investment concern, opening the door to additional round of investment in the future, if / when needed. As Henkel-Wallace informed Gamesindustry.biz, “This money really marks an inflection point from being just a raw start-up to actually allowing us to become a really fully functioning company.”

Congrats to Jeri, Rick, David and the team.

Sources

castAR gets a Mountain View as the developer kits appear

The new Deve Kit version of castAR
The new Dev Kit version of castAR (image via Engadget)

I’ve been following the work of Technical Illusions, the creators of the castAR projected augmented reality headset with a VR capability, for some time now, although things have been quiet on the news front for a while. However, that’s starting to change.

The first item of news is that the company in the process of moving its operations from Seattle, Washington, to Mountain View, California.

Henkel-Wallace
David Henkel-Wallace – castAR’s recently appointed CEO (image: Technical Illusions)

The move is being overseen by the company’s new CEO, David Henkel-Wallace, who joined the company in June 2014. The move is in part to try to drive-up the company’s ability to hire hardware talent – they’ve found it hard to get hardware specialists in Seattle, where software rules the roost. It also puts them in the middle of “Nerdvana” – as Co-founder Jeri Ellsworth puts it, which could do much to raise their visibility in terms of inward investment opportunities.

As it is, the company numbers around a dozen full-time employees, including Henkel-Wallace, founders Ellsworth and Rick Johnson and CFO Paul Denton. Both Denton and Henkel-Wallace have considerable experience in building-up start-ups. There’s also Toby the cat, also listed as co-founder, and fulfilling the role of Senior Cat, with responsibilities for eating, sleeping, purring and lap-sitting.

The other major news for the company is that a year after their Kickstarter campaign, their initial developer kits are now ready, and will soon be shipping to those people who pre-ordered kit through the campaign. The new headsets have also been on show to the likes of Engadget and Venture Beat’s Gamesbeat, where Ellsworth talked to Dean Takahashi.

Ellsworth is the first to admit the new headsets are still some way short of a production-ready version, but they’ve still come a long way from even the 2nd prototype versions seen just seven  months ago.

castAR - from pre-prototype (top) in early 2014 to the developer version of the headset (bottom), October 2014
castAR – from pre-prototype (top) in early 2014 to the developer version of the headset (bottom), October 2014 (images via Engadget)

The revised developer headset weighs-in at some 140 grams, and the company is aiming to get this down to around 80 grams in the production version. Included in that are two 120 Hz cameras with 135 degrees tracking, and 1,000 Hz gyro. The optics, now supplied by a Japanese company, deliver a resolution of 2,560-by-720, with every pixel addressable and capable of being resolved at a distances of between half a metre and 2 metres when using the retro-reflective system.

The headset is admittedly still nerdy-looking, resembling a pair of heavily framed sunglasses with a bulky silver mounting for the LEDs and cameras on top. However, Technical Illusions state that they opted to make the headset somewhat on the big / clunky side, as they weren’t sure how well all the tech would fit into it. They’re now confident that the package can be shrunk down to something which not only meets their target weight, but which is also more pleasing to the eye and closer to their conceptual look for production versions.

As well as the headset, the other major components of the system  – the interactive wand, the retro-reflective surface and the VR clip-on – have all been refined and improved. Work is still ongoing with the wand, which allows a user to manipulate virtual items projected by the headset onto the retro-reflective surface with “sub-millimetre accuracy”. Kits, when shipped, will also include Technical Illusions’s own game, mARbles, designed to demonstrate the gameplay capability of the system to developers.

mARbles has been designed by the castAR team to demonstrate the potential of project AR games to developers
mARbles is a “Marble Madness”-style game which can be played individually or by two r more players. It is shipping with the castAR dev kits (image: Technical Illusions)

So what is the market for the castAR? Ellsworth believes that games “will be king for a while”, and admits to looking forward to seeing flight simulators that use the castAR projection system, although she also notes other potential uses when talking to GamesBeat’s Takahashi.

A lot of people are going to get excited about tabletop collaborative experiences, where multiple people sit around a table and work in the same physical space. All the game characters are in the same space. We have a lot of companies approaching us that want to use it for visualization – architecture, things like that, where you can sit around and table and work in the same space.

Nor do users necessarily need to be in the same physical space, in order to engage with one another, as the company has demonstrated in a number of its videos.

In terms of practical applications, Technical Illusions have been working with medical experts to see how the castAR system might be used alongside MRI scans, the castAR system being use to build 3D holograms of scanned patients which can be examined by doctors and / or surgeons, helping them to build a more complete understanding of the patient’s condition.

The conceptualised castAR production headset and VR clip-on system (image: Technical Illusions)
The conceptualised castAR production headset and VR clip-on system (image: Technical Illusions)

How successful castAR is likely to be is hard to judge; the world is awash with excitement over VR that all things AR have been largely sidelined. Even the involvement of Google (and others) in Magic Wand hasn’t really done much to change that.

castAR is also somewhat different to other AR systems seen so far, potentially making it an oddball in the eyes of some media, although its potential to enter into the VR sphere through the VR clip-on may serve to generate wider interest. How big a footprint castAR might actually make in the VR world is hard to judge; a key here might be in whether it can be made compatible with games being specifically developed for Rift-type hardware.

So far, the company has managed to achieve a lot while remaining relatively low-profile. Their emphasis for the foreseeable future is on building relationship with developers and getting content integrated into the system as the hardware itself continues to mature towards the desired consumer format.

Even so, if the company is to make its mark, it is liable to need the support of investors – and the move to Mountain View is, as noted by Technical Illusions themselves, perhaps as much about that as putting them more readily at the hub of available expertise. As such, it’ll be interesting to see where the move leads.

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