For many in the gaming world, virtual reality is the hot topic of conversation right now—and understandably so. After years in development, Oculus is on the verge of releasing their headset at retail, and many suspect Sony will unveil the release date and price point for PlayStation VR in the coming weeks. Coming up hot on VR’s heels, however, is the concept of augmented reality. First demonstrated via headset with Microsoft’s HoloLens at last year’s E3, augmented reality differs from virtual reality in that VR will put players in the game world, whereas AR puts the game in ours. And, much like how Oculus quickly had competition from every corner of the gaming industry, Microsoft’s HoloLens is no longer alone in the AR race.
Founded by former Valve employees Rick Johnson and Jeri Ellsworth, castAR is a tech company on the forefront of AR. They were in the news recently for returning the one million dollars they had raised via Kickstarter after getting $15 million from Playground Global, an investment fund run by Android creator Andy Rubin. After having a chance to actually play around with castAR’s first headset last week at the D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas, and being blown away by what I saw and experienced, it’s no wonder Rubin thought they were a sound investment.
Before the demo began, I took stock of the equipment we were using. castAR’s headset may not look like much, but the experience it provides—and could potentially provide—shows that big things can come in small packages. The headset looked like a pair of Blues Brothers sunglasses with a silver projector bar on top. Connected to this was a Wiimote-like controller, and the entire package was hooked up to a small laptop running the software I was trying. Once the headset was placed on my head, I found it far lighter than what you’d experience with Oculus or PlayStation VR. In front of me was a two-foot-by-two-foot square of white retro-reflective material that could be broken down into four smaller pieces for easy storage. It was on this surface, and only this surface, that the games I would play would appear.
And right off the bat, that was the great thing about AR. I could play games in an immersive setting with the 3D hologram-like projection castAR could create, but could also turn away without affecting the action to look at someone as we had a conversation—which I often did with Rick and castAR CEO David Henkel-Wallace during my demo time. It was while speaking with these gentlemen that I also learned that castAR is aiming for a retail release by the end of 2017, but the hope was the setup I saw before me would be more streamlined with less wires and—potentially—not even need a laptop to run the games. Yes, castAR has the goal of making the entire package able to run independently of other technology, so that you can take whatever components out of the box, quickly set them up, and jump right into a game.
One of the more exciting things was the idea of additional retro-reflective material, allowing you to expand the potential game world. While I was playing an isometric view arcade shooter demo, Rick added a fifth segment of game space at one point, set up perpendicular to the original sheet. Suddenly, the map expanded, and I could see more of the level ahead of me. It may sound crazy right now, but could you imagine what a set-up with 10 or 20 retro-reflective squares would look like? I could see people lining entire sections of rooms with the material to further enhance immersion—although, at that point VR might be more practical.
Other demos I got to play with castAR’s headset was some two-player games, such as competing with a friend of mine in a game of Battleship, where we each saw completely different game boards, and Jenga, which offered up a fully-realized 3D tower of blocks stacked in front of us. My favorite demo, though, may have been the solo Marble Madness-like game that I tried, as it really showed off more of what castAR could do. As I moved my ball through the course, the world spun around me, or I could get a better look at the virtual environment from different angles by walking around the 3D space. I never lost track of surroundings due both to the game being confined to the retro-reflective material, and my being able to see my actual physical environment.
Unfortunately, it’ll be a while until we’ll get to own a device for ourselves, as castAR is looking to stay in development until at least 2017. At the same time, I’m immensely excited to think of how far the tech can come in that time, and what other, more complex games can be added to the system before its eventual launch. It’s also clearer than ever before that the world of video games is changing. Whether you find yourself on the AR or VR side of the fence, or are trying to toe the line between both, game immersion is increasing at an exponential rate to the point that it’s hard to predict exactly where the next great experience will come from—but I now wouldn’t be surprised to see castAR’s work become one of the major players in that new world of entertainment.