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CastAR's narrow window of opportunity

As Kickstarter campaign closes, Rick Johnson tries to push a disruptive wave of augmented reality before Microsoft and Sony jump in

Sony will launch its much-anticipated PlayStation 4 in North America tonight at midnight, but it may not be the most significant event in gaming to happen that hour. Right as stores in Newfoundland get the greenlight to sell the new console, the Kickstarter campaign for the CastAR augmented reality and virtual reality system will be funded. As of this morning, the campaign had drawn a little over $920,000 in support, more than twice the original backing goal of $400,000. GamesIndustry International recently spoke with Technical Illusions' Rick Johnson to talk about changing perceptions of augmented reality, and how he and CastAR co-creator Jeri Ellsworth plan to get people using their new tech.

While augmented reality is several years old, Johnson said it hasn't been done properly yet. The approach most developers have taken to the idea is, "What can we do with the existing hardware," which has led to a lot of novelty apps on cell phones and dedicated gaming handhelds.

"It's a very small subset of what's possible," Johnson said. "It's always going to have a bit of latency or swimming; it's not going to be a very immersive experience, like looking through a porthole on a ship instead of being surrounded by it. Having glasses, in the same way as a device like Oculus, once you put them on, then the entire world can be augmented. We see that as truly living in the reality of what augmented reality should become."

CastAR's approach, with tiny glasses-mounted projectors displaying images on special reflective surfaces, solves some issues that have accompanied similar tech experiments. For example, it lets people focus their eyes at a normal distance to see the image, instead of on a screen right in front of their face, which can induce nausea.

"Ultimately, I think we have better technology [than Oculus Rift] to support the entire system overall."

Rick Johnson

"At the same time, we realized augmented reality was just one thing we could do," Johnson said. "That's why we created the [virtual reality] clip-ons, to give you a full virtual reality that doesn't require the surface or anything like that. Ultimately we decided that we're going to just go for both spaces, and we can do both really well at a price that hasn't been seen before." (The Oculus Rift development kit sells for $300; the CastAR Kickstarter promises a pair of glasses, the VR headset, a magic wand controller, and the special AR surface for $285.)

Despite being less expensive than the Oculus Rift and more versatile in functionality, CastAR has a technological edge on its competition as well, Johnson said.

"Our projectors run at 120 Hz, so there's a faster refresh rate," Johnson said. "We have a fill factor that's nearly 93 percent so you don't have the screen door effect or any of the other kind of banding you do with an LCD panel. We also have a better tracking system that has a full six degrees of freedom. There's no gyros, there's no drift, it's 100 percent accurate. And we have less distortion in our lenses, so you have more useful pixels in the view. Ultimately, I think we have better technology to support the entire system overall."

Of course, all the fancy hardware in the world won't do much good without software to run on it, and Technical Illusions is trying to make it as easy as possible for developers to jump on board with augmented reality. They're integrating CastAR into Unity, are in discussions with other indie manufacturers, and readying a software development kit for the system complete with recording of head-tracking movements. It's a hard space to get into, Johnson said, so a lot of the focus so far has been on showing people how well the system works. They've brought it to two MakerFaire events (both of which gave them editor's choice and educator's choice awards), as well as GDC Next, trying to get as many people as possible to have first-hand experience with the system. That will be key, as the window of opportunity for a small start-up to establish itself in the AR field could soon be closing.

"Eventually, we know that Sony and Microsoft are working pretty hard in this space. Games are ultimately heading toward supporting this space."

Rick Johnson

"Eventually, we know that Sony and Microsoft are working pretty hard in this space," Johnson said. "Games are ultimately heading toward supporting this space. It's not going to replace console games or traditional gaming, but it's a direction that is proceeding very heavily by other companies. So we figured we can get out there first, get support on, and then everybody is up and coming for once this wave truly hits."

When that wave does finally make landfall, Johnson expects it to make a mess of whatever's in its way.

"I think you're going to see AR in general being disruptive," Johnson said. "And hopefully we can lead the charge into it. The entire dream of AR is what we see in movies, that it's a walk-around experience where you can have graphics and text plastered onto any wall and that sort of stuff. And that's still many years away from having a solid experience. So our philosophy is that we're going to get into AR in this direction, and then each iteration we're going to expand upon the capabilities and feature sets. And hopefully getting into the forefront of these products we can help lead and guide this direction and eventually get to that final goal."

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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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