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During our meeting with Jeri Ellsworth and Rich Johnson, founders of Technical Illusions, it became clear they’re passionate about what they’ve created.
We were among the first to try "CastAR," a prototype headset that uses 720p projectors to achieve three varieties of augmented reality: Projected Augmented Reality, which projects light out from the glasses and onto reflective surfaces, Augmented Reality, which projects light inside the glasses and partially overlays the real world, and Virtual Reality, which obscures the real world and replaces it with game environments or other content.
Our first experience with the augmented reality aspect of the CastAR immediately demonstrated why it's already generated so much excitement. The images were detailed, the colors were vivid, and the projected objects were in full 3D. Seeing a realistic animated character suddenly occupy the environment of the Technical Illusions suite, with mundane hotel beds and couches in the background, was striking. The idea that we could then manipulate these projections was even more exciting.
An advantage of the hardware included in the CastAR is that it uses existing, inexpensive technology for innovative applications...
In projected augmented reality mode, the CastAR uses retro reflective sheeting material–similar to the material used for traffic signs and reflective safety clothing. This material is able to bounce the majority of the projected light back to the projectors with very little scattering. This also means that an unlimited number users can view the same surface, with each person’s view remaining private.
The Magic Wand attachment wasn’t available for our demo, but we learned about its specifications. It includes a trigger function, an analog joystick and several buttons. The end piece is removable, and uses the same tracking technology as the glasses. There's also an additional gyro that will provide new features in the future.
The sophisticated head tracking system used in the CastAR is based on infrared LEDs mounted on a small sensor plate. This plate needs to be unobstructed in order to get the full AR experience, but the tracking system is very sensitive, using over 200 unique tracking points with a 8.3ms response time. It also has a 110-degree field of vision, and a 120Hz update rate. The head tracking system is accurate to 0.07mm.
CastAR's glasses contain two micro projectors and a camera. The glasses feature active shutters with 50% duty cycle, and receive the video signal through an HDMI connection. They’re able to fit over most prescription lenses, weighing in at less than 100 grams (future versions will weigh even less). The tiny camera scans for infrared identification markers placed on the retro reflective material. The camera uses these markers to track what you’re looking at, which allows the software to adjust how the holographic image should look.
A tracking grid fits underneath the retro reflective surface, and is used with the RFID bases designed for the CastAR (or can be used with user-designed RFID bases). This allows the CastAR to track and identify objects placed on the grid.
These bases can be tweaked to provide unique augmented reality features for the object they’re attached to. For example, you could use a modified RFID base on a game piece for a combat tank, displaying a health and shield bar. You could attach these to game cards, making a virtual monster leap out of a card when it’s placed on the RFID grid. There are practical applications as well, such as creating a fully manipulable 3D projection of a medical scan, allowing a doctor to zoom in and search for abnormalities.
There are two types of RFID bases: RFID and RFID Precision. Precision bases have a custom circuit board that allows for object tracking along with two-way communication. This communication can be used to activate physical features on the object they’re attached to (such as activating motors, lights or other settings). It can also be used to increase the precision of the RFID tracking on the grid.
This addition to the CastAR allows you to experience true AR, removing the need for the retro reflective surface and allowing for real-world augmented reality. It can also allow you to experience a full VR experience, completely immersing you in a virtual environment. In order to experience augmented reality without the retro reflective surface, the infrared markers need to be placed within visible range of the CastAR. The clip-ons take the images emitted by the projectors and expand them to form a near eye optical path. This produces a low distortion result with an extremely high fill factor.
The most obvious application for the technology used in CastAR is for tabletop gaming. For games like Warhammer 40k or Dungeons & Dragons, you can have multiple people playing in a simulated environment providing a unique level of immersion. However, thinking about the other possible uses for CastAR’s technology is pretty exciting. For the medical field, medical students could learn how to operate on a fully manipulable 3D model of the human body. For education, teachers could project educational materials onto classroom desks and allow students full interaction. You could even cover an entire room in the retro reflective material, creating your own Star Trek holodeck (finally).
Later versions of the CastAR will include optimization of the HD projectors for latency, refinement of the optics, and improved weight/size of the glasses. The team is also exploring communication with mobile devices, which could allow you to simply plug your glasses into your phone to receive an AR or VR experience. They’re also looking to expand support into game engines (as well as other applications) to start attracting developers.
One of the reasons we find augmented reality so fascinating is because of the key differences it has from virtual reality. In a virtual reality environment, you’re pulled out of the real world and immersed in a virtual world. Augmented reality projects the virtual world into the real world, allowing you to interact with it in a way that provides an entirely different form of immersion.
The CastAR starter kit can be pre-ordered in the Technical Illusions store for $189, and will ship in September of 2014.
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