There are all kinds of companies experimenting with augmented and virtual reality right now. Google Glass projects a screen onto your retina. Oculus Rift straps a display to your face. Meta SpaceGlasses beam a hologram out in front of you. Now you can add another player to the game—castAR.
CastAR is a headmounted augmented reality engine that projects a 3D image on a surface and allows users to interact with it to play virtual games like Dungeons and Dragons or Risk, for example.
The makers of castAR, Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson, cite the classic image of Chewbacca and R2-D2 playing holographic “chess” on the Millenium Falcon as an inspiration for their invention. And while the experience appears much the same, castAR isn’t a a holographic interface in quite the same sense.
Whereas most movies assume a static projector, Ellsworth and Johnson decided to attach two projectors to a pair of glasses and hook them up to a PC. The glasses record head motion and project an adaptive stereoscopic 3D image—the visual equivalent of stereo sound—onto a special reflective mat.
The mat is made of the same material used to make traffic signs or reflective safety clothing. It bounces the light directly back to its source, in this case your eyes, without scattering much of it.
Multiple people can project images of the same game from different angles and play simultaneously. Players can interact with games using a Magic Wand and can play with real game pieces (like D&D characters) using an RFID tracking device.
For now, the mat is about the size of a coffee table, but Ellsworth envisions someone covering an entire room in the stuff to make a kind of holodeck—digital worlds would be projected onto any surface you look at.
And you may not always need the mat to use castAR. The glasses already come with a virtual reality clip-on to simulate more immersive experience sans a special reflective surface, and the team may in the future improve the VR option.
Formerly employees at game developer, Valve, Ellsworth and Johnson were laid off in early 2013 (or as they say on Kickstarter, “an opportunity presented itself”). While at Valve, Ellsworth mocked up an early prototype of castAR, dubbed the “head crab,” and when she left, Valve co-founder, Gabe Newell, allowed her to bring it with her.
Ellsworth and Johnson had already collaborated a bit on the device before leaving Valve—Ellsworth worked on hardware and Johnson wrote code—and after packing their bags, the two started a company, Technical Illusions, and brought a castAR prototype to Maker Faire 2012. Encouraged by its popularity, they decided to launch a Kickstarter.
It’s been a hit, to say the least. Their campaign met its $400,000 goal in the first day and is gunning for more in the remaining 23 days. At $189, you’ll receive a pair of castAR glasses the surface to project. Higher pledges get accessories—Magic Wand, virtual reality clip-on, a bigger mat, and the RFID tracking grid.
Obviously, castAR isn’t precisely in competition with the likes of Google or other wearable devices for your face. Neither are they quite as immersive as the Oculus Rift (thought they say you'll be less prone to motion sickness with castAR).
You need the special mat to experience the digital realm, and the glasses are wired to a PC (USB and HDMI). The future may hold wireless versions of castAR powered by a smartphone. But for now the pair are focused on reducing the weight of the glasses, miniaturizing the components, and dialing in the overall setup.
Since Google first announced Glass, augmented reality has blown up. And while we're primarily seeing clunky early prototypes (even Glass is far from finished), there are more and more people devoting their brains to the problem. The next few years could bear witness to some pretty amazing creations.
Image Credit: Technical Illusions