SAN MATEO, Calif. — Technical Illusions' Cast AR glasses, shown for the first time at Maker Faire —a festival that highlights invention, creativity and resourcefulness — in the Bay Area this past weekend, aims to bring gaming into the real world using augmented reality.
Co-founded by Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson, this approach to augmented reality immerses you in the action in a very different way than virtual-reality glasses like the Oculus Rift VR headset do.
Ellsworth and Johnson began work on the technology while at game innovator Valve. Ellsworth was actually Valve's first engineering hire, and she formed a dream team to explore different potential areas of business. When she and Valve parted ways earlier this year, Ellsworth didn't let her vision die.
Ellsworth and Johnson, who works on the software components, met over wine and '80s movies, and decided to move forward with their vision for augmented reality. Since the project began while at Valve, the duo talked to their former employers and worked through the legalities so they could continue their project free and clear.
For the past few months, the duo has worked 16- to 18-hour days, six days a week, to ready the project for its Maker Faire debut. [Read also: " The Early History of Video Games: From Blips to Blasters "]
Inside the AR glasses
Rather than have a mounted display, as on Google Glass, these glasses have two liquid-crystal-on-silicon (LCOS)-based handheld projectors that display images in front of you. Each hand-built demo unit shown at Maker Faire had a projector mounted over each eye, but the prototype shown in our photos — which may be closer in design to what the company plans to offer via a Kickstarter campaign later this summer — have the projectors mounted on the side of the glasses.
At the bridge of the glasses sits a tracking camera that uses a cellphone image sensor. The sensor can detect movement at the submillimeter level, which lets objects in the system feel as if they're truly locked into that world.
The glasses would be hooked up to a PC or a cellphone via cables. According to Ellsworth, no currently available wireless technology can handle the transfer of video in the way the glasses require. However, she has painstakingly engineered a way to get the cables down to a super narrow and flexible design, so the cables on the glasses are more like the ones on headphones, rather than bulky standard USB or video cables.
The glasses have customized hardware and software, including a field-programmable gate array chip that handles the processing for tracking the head position quickly and accurately. This design makes the glasses lighter than some of the ones used in other approaches to virtual reality or augmented reality, many of which project light into the eye.
And because the glasses do the processing work, it takes the load off of your cell phone or computer, resulting in smooth game play.
Another benefit to projecting the image in front of you, Ellsworth said, is that the glasses don't end up with alignment issues that cause eyestrain. “We project out to a surface that is at a real distance, so it's natural to look — and things feel very natural that they're [positioned] above the surface or below the surface. It doesn't feel forced,” Ellsworth explained.
By design, the glasses also include another feature that’s even more important for gaming: allow interaction to remain open, because game play space is not separate from the surrounding environment.
This opens the door for a variety of real-world gaming applications that we haven't seen yet. “We foresee a lot of games that could be possible, and would be social,” Ellsworth said. “It's a completely new game experience. I think a few existing games might work well to be retrofitted to work with this, and some games will be created.”
Technical Illusions is working to combine all the elements for developers to create games that are compatible with the glasses. “We have the glasses; we have input devices, such as a wand; and we have playing cards that use RFID to identify both the card's physical location in the space and what the card can do. We have figurine tracking, too,” Ellsworth said.
The Cast AR glasses could be used in card games and traditional analog role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons. Augmented reality, delivered in the manner proposed by Cast AR, could be the jump-start needed to help bring such analog games into the digital social game-playing age.
Gaming with Cast AR felt very natural and realistic. The glasses were lightweight and unobtrusive. While there were no shadows in the demos — so you couldn't ascertain certain aspects of how you're positioned relative to objects, — our game-playing experience felt like a smooth extension of our perceptions.
The Jenga-like block game we tried was highly responsive to our waves of the wand to topple blocks, and moving our head meant we could see above, below and around the surface upon which the blocks rested to. In many ways, the experience was reminiscent of the game that was the subject of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called “The Game.”
The gaming experience felt immersive, but didn’t cut us off from the world around us; we could have just as easily been sitting around a table viewing fellow human players around us and watching our avatars poised for battle with a horde of orcs.
We had no sense of disorientation when we moved our head, as can sometimes happen with other virtual-reality immersion headsets. Nor was there any issue with color shift — the LCOS projectors use color filter LCOS, so the color plane doesn't fall apart with movement, as can happen with other pico-projector technologies.
Ellsworth said the goal is to launch a Kickstarter campaign later this summer, but the timing is still not nailed down. The glasses, wand and playing surface will be sold as a set, for less than $200.
Let the gaming begin.
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