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Augmented reality facing a chicken-egg problem - Ellsworth

Technical Illusions co-founder sees niche enthusiast devs as the key to mainstream success, lays out CastAR's advantages over HoloLens

Until last month, Technical Illusions' Kickstarted CastAR had been the biggest name on the augmented reality side of the current VR/AR hype wave. However, Technical illusions co-founder Jeri Ellsworth told at the DICE Summit earlier this month that she was actually happy to see Microsoft throw its HoloLens into the augmented reality ring for a number of reasons, not the least of which was in the way it echoed a pitch CastAR had been making for years.

"'Have your virtual reality experiences and keep the world in your sight' was a brilliant message to get out there, and they could spread it much better than our little company could," Ellsowrth said. "And that's exactly what we've been chanting from the beginning. In a lot of cases, you don't want to be completely isolated from the world. Most people are going to want to have the world available to them within a split second."

"'Have your virtual reality experiences and keep the world in your sight' was a brilliant message to get out there, and [Microsoft] could spread it much better than our little company could."

The HoloLens most certainly has an advantage over CastAR when it comes to marketing muscle, but Ellsworth said Technical Illusions' effort has its own competitive advantages to leverage against Microsoft. For one, developers are already working with the hardware. The company started sending out CastAR dev units around the New Year, and within weeks enthusiasts had already cobbled together games based on Tron's light cycles and BattleZone-style tank games. Ellworth also promised a price advantage over Microsoft, saying, "we're going to blow them away on cost."

"They have extremely complicated depth sensors, they have to put fans on it to keep it cool, and they're trying to put all the processing in the headset," Ellsworth said. "It's really, really difficult to pull off. So they have a lot of science to solve to get that to work."

The HoloLens unveiling set off some red flags for Ellsworth, who thinks Microsoft is overpromising just what the hardware will be able to do. It's a common problem with new tech, one Ellsworth identified with another recent piece of kit, Google Glass.

"They put out these videos that were unrealistic, things their device couldn't possibly do," Ellsworth said of Google's high-profile experiment in wearable computing. "And it set expectations, and it disappointed the end user."

Of course, in some ways, the expectations for augmented reality and virtual reality have already been set by decades of film and television. Whether in sci-fi settings or high-tech police procedurals, floating transparent displays, gesture-based interfaces, and photorealistic virtual worlds have become synonymous with the future of technology. Technical Illusions attempted to rein some of that in for its CastAR Kickstarter campaign, but Ellsworth said the project still suffered for it.

"When we launched our Kickstarter, we made sure we shot through the glasses and tried to show as real an image as we could, and everything kind of looked flat," Ellsworth said. "But when you actually wear the device, things are just springing up out of the table. Using the wand you can scoop up voxels and move them around. It's really magical and it's just hard to capture. In some ways, you gotta [take] some liberties there. It's a double-edged sword."

"Our end goal is a headset that even my father can just go to Target, buy it, pull it out of the box, put it on, and he's playing his fantasy football right on the table."

But expectations aren't the big drag keeping VR and/or AR from taking off. Ellsworth called it a multidimensional chicken-and-egg problem ("a mobius strip of chicken and egg," to be more precise), requiring advancements of both hardware and software before the technology can go truly mainstream. Latency and head-tracking is "right on the edge of where it needs to be," Ellsworth said, but form factors need to move away from bulky headsets that could turn off casual and hardcore players alike.

"Our end goal is a headset that even my father, who's not technical, can just go to Target, buy it, pull it out of the box, put it on, and he's playing his fantasy football right on the table," Ellsworth said. "He doesn't have to install drivers. He doesn't need to have a certain caliber of PC."

And then there's the issue of the "killer app." People aren't going to buy the hardware unless there's some great software for it, but some of the biggest and best software makers are unlikely to embrace a new platform if it only has 100,000 units on the market. The answer, Ellsworth believes, will come from the enthusiast community.

"You see it through every industry," Ellsworth said. "The home computer industry was all enthusiasts and then eventually there was enough functionality developed that their friends would come over and see they could play Mario or whatever on their home computer so they'd get one for themselves. I think that stair-stepping is going to have to happen over the next two or three years. Flood the enthusiast market, start experimenting with applications to find the right application."

The AR field has a wealth of possible applications from medicine to education, but Ellsworth said games will drive adoption at the outset by virtue of the enthusiast communities they foster. Technical Illusions has even built its roadmap around the enthusiast market. Ellsworth said the plan is to target enthusiasts this year, early adopters next, and then the mass market shortly afterwards, "once we knock off all the rough edges."

That's still a ways off, as Ellsworth said CastAR will continue to be tethered to external computers for some time, a trait that she believes needs to change before AR can go mainstream. While the move to mainstream might take a while to materialize, Ellsworth is convinced it's going to happen, and that AR won't be relegated to the drawer of "next big things" that never happened, like VR in the 1990s. That trend was a valiant dream doomed because the technology wasn't ready, Ellsworth said, but the lessons learned then have set the stage to make modern AR a viable market.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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