Augmented Reality just got a lot more augmented and a lot more comfortable. Technical Illusions, the latest company to spring from the efforts of Jeri Ellsworth, has just launched the CastAR Kickstarter project to bring their long string of prototype AR/VR hardware out of the lab and into production. CastAR is really a set of related technologies. The core system is a pair of glasses with a pair of 720p, 120 mhz projectors mounted above the eyes. The projectors each send out a relatively weak, dim image. When the images hit the second part of the system – sheets of retro-reflective material – the material bounces the images straight back directly at the source of the light. Because the projectors are so close to the eyes, you see what’s being projected as a sharp, brighter image. The 3D effect comes from seeing one image for each eye. The high degree of directionality of the retro-reflective material means that each eye sees the light from its own projector. Because the eyes are so close together, there is a slight bleed of the image from one eye to the other; to combat this, the glasses use active-shutter technology to eliminate the bleed.
This approach offers quite a few advantages over more traditional 3D technologies. Arguably the most important is that it’s a very cheap system; $300 will set you up with the whole basic kit. Those who have used the system report that it’s FAR more comfortable than traditional 3D technology as well. You’re not trying to focus your eyes unnaturally while using it; the images you’re seeing are out farther from your face, not right in front of your eyeballs. This eliminates the eye strain and tiredness that many people report from other 3D tech.
It’s also usable by people with a variety of eye problems, and even by people entirely blind in one eye. This is because CastAR uses high-precision location tracking to know exactly where it is in relation to its environment. Head- or eye-location tracking isn’t new, but CastAR is specifically designed for extremely precise tracking to a sub-millimeter scale. This lets it track head position even for tiny movements side to side, for instance, which is one way that people missing an eye can cope with their lack of true 3D vision; CastAR will show them virtual worlds in exactly the same way they’re used to seeing the real world. That’s a small but really powerful thing. It also eliminates the motion sickness that some people experience from 3D technologies.
Impressive as the glasses-and-retroreflective material combo is, it’s not the end of the story. CastAR employs a “magic wand” to let you reach into and manipulate the 3D worlds that you’re looking at, as well as RFID bases and an RFID surface to allow for precision tracking of real-world objects in the virtual world. This is ideal for board games, miniature games, roleplaying games, and an enormous number of non-game uses as well. Imagine playing Warhammer without ever having to reach for a ruler or tape measure!
These RFID bases come in two types; regular RFID, and RFID precision. The precision bases allow two-way communication between CastAR and the base, which can be used to control the game piece the base is attached to. Imagine remote-controlled cars used as game pieces that the game itself could move around the board? For me personally, the single most exciting element of the CastAR system is the prospect of covering an entire room, floor to ceiling, with retroreflective material or paint. You’d instantly have a holodeck! Everywhere you looked, you’d see whatever virtual world you’re in, 360 degrees, x, y, and z. That’s something they haven’t tried yet – but they want to. I can’t WAIT to see how it turns out.