Rising like a prototypical phoenix from the ashes of a discarded Valve project comes CastAR. The worlds first projected AR and VR system has arrived at Kickstarter and is nearly fully funded after just two days.
CastARs Dramatic Journey
Many of you are probably familiar with the story of CastAR, at least superficially. It’s the story of talented individuals (Inventor / Product Engineer Jeri Ellsworth and Programmer Rick Johnson), passionate about a project initiated by the benevolent Valve Software – at the time searching for the ‘next big thing’ in gaming hardware – and that project’s premature axing and it’s teams untimely elimination.
However, the story doesn’t end there and in a typically Gaben-esque gesture, Valve gifted the prototype Intellectual Property to the team in order that they may continue it’s development independently. Why did Valve lose faith in the project? Was it the appearance of the Oculus Rift, a fully formed project in Virtual Reality poised to explode onto the gaming scene? Valve’s enthusiastic embrace of the technology from the beginning might lead you to believe so. Perhaps we’ll never know and in truth it probably doesn’t matter any more. What does matter is that CastAR is finally ready to hit Kickstarter and allow the people decide if Valve has missed an opportunity in discarding it.
Just before the Kickstarter began, Jeri went into quite some detail on the events surrounding their dismissal from Valve in a video posted to her YouTube Channel. It illustrates the drive, passion and belief Jeri has for her creation:
Projected Augmented Reality: How it Works
CastAR is a ‘Projected Augmented Reality’ system which fuses multiple technologies to offer a pretty unique gaming experience. The user dons a set of lightweight glasses, housing LCD shutter panels. Mounted over each lens is a tiny micro LCD projector – one for each eye. The projectors cast dual images at 120Hz on a special retro-reflective surface. The LCD lenses, also operating at 120Hz, filter the projected images delivering stereoscopic pictures to your eyes. The effect is that of a solid holographic display, with images appearing to ‘exist’ within the plane of the reflective surface. That’s a pretty impressive package right there, but CastAR goes even further.
The system allows the user to move around the projected image, leaning in and out of the scene with the image shifting to sell the illusion of an object existing in front of you. It achieves this by use of a centrally mounted camera (on the bridge of the glasses) and the use of a proprietary infra-red LED plate, placed alongside the retro-reflective playing surface. The camera reads the position, translation and orientation of the LEDs and extrapolates the users position in space relative to the image as well as the pitch, roll and yaw of the user’s head.
Finally, as the retro-reflective surface (similar to that used in road signs) doesn’t scatter light as most surfaces, only the user of the glasses sees the projected image. This means, more than one person can share the surface and share the same image but viewed from their perspective, under their control. Pretty cool stuff.
The VR Surprise
Up until now the project was believed to be exclusively Augmented Reality focussed, but just before the Kickstarter campaign began, the team revealed a surprise – a clip-on reflector system which bounces light from the integrated projectors back to your eyes and ‘voila!’ CastAR is now a Virtual Reality headset.
CastAR is clearly well suited for applications such as table top gaming. With this in mind, the team have also produced a complimentary set of peripherals to enhance the experience. AnLED tipped wand allowing the user to reach into the gameworld and RFID enabled ‘mats’ which sense objects with the appropriate electronic tags and their position on the surface – perfect for D&D style role playing games.
The company behind the project, Technical Illusions, has set a $400k goal for the campaign and at the time of writing (with 30 days left) it’s already over 80% funded. Clearly this campaign will be a success, just how enormous that success will be remains to be seen. The standard tiers, offering a range of packages for different needs are well judged. But in response to the positive initial surge of support, the team have released details of stretch goals including developing integrated earbuds and mics for the glasses.
It’s a promising project and the passion shown by Jeri and Rick, who’ve worked constantly since their Valve upset to refine their idea into a product that can fulfil their vision. We wish them the best of luck and very much look forward to seeing CastAR in action for ourselves.