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Inside IllumiRoom: Microsoft's world-expanding Xbox projector is 'just research' for now

Inside IllumiRoom: Microsoft's world-expanding Xbox projector is 'just research' for now


Public demo planned for July, but Redmond remains tight-lipped about its future

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Microsoft today revealed new details about its IllumiRoom technology — an augmented reality home entertainment system that expands gaming content beyond the realm of a TV display, and onto living room walls. Brett Jones, part of the team that created the project at Microsoft Research, detailed the system during a presentation Tuesday at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) in Paris, describing IllumiRoom as an immersive technology that "makes your living room come to life."

When Microsoft announced IllumiRoom at CES this year, it fueled widespread speculation that the technology may be incorporated into the next-generation Xbox, to be unveiled next month. Subsequent teasers only amplified this speculation, though the company has thus far declined to confirm whether or not IllumiRoom will be integrated within its forthcoming console, describing it only as a "proof-of-concept system."

All signs, however, suggest that the technology may be ready for market sooner rather than later. Microsoft's demos — designed and implemented within just three months — have seemed remarkably advanced, and although the company has said that IllumiRoom could be used to augment film and TV, gaming has been its primary focus. That trend continued today, as Jones devoted the majority of his presentation to describing the ways in which IllumiRoom could transform the gaming experience. At one point, he explicitly compared it to the Oculus Rift, saying the IllumiRoom would enable more diverse and immersive gameplay.

"Augmented reality, not just virtual reality."

"We believe IllumiRoom has a number of advantages," he said when discussing the differences between his prototype and the virtual reality headset. "It enables augmented reality gaming, not just virtual reality, and it enables a shared experience, so you can see and interact with the player sitting next to you." In an interview with The Verge, Jones clarified that he doesn't see IllumiRoom as a direct competitor to the Oculus Rift, but as more of a complement — something that, unlike Oculus, lets him "have a beer while I play Halo."

Microsoft has explored several augmented reality projects in the past, though it seems to have adopted a different tenor around IllumiRoom. Representatives from Microsoft Research, traditionally a more academic branch, have seemed more like marketers in recent months, stressing the impact IllumiRoom could have on consumers. The above teaser video, released yesterday, describes IllumiRoom as a technology that "envisions a next-generation gaming console" — a turn of phrase that, at least ostensibly, suggests the system may be integrated with Microsoft's next Xbox.

Hrvoje Benko, a researcher who collaborated on the project at Microsoft Research, insists that IllumiRoom is still a work in progress, though he stopped short of definitively saying whether it would or would not be integrated with the new Xbox.

"At this point it's purely a research project."

"At this point it's purely a research project," Benko said in an interview with The Verge. Benko added that the mention of next-generation consoles was not an explicit reference to the Xbox, but a look "five or ten years" down the road.

Yet for something that's only a "research project," the IllumiRoom has been publicized with unusual fanfare. Eric Rudder, the chief technical strategy officer at Microsoft, unveiled the system during Samsung's CES keynote this year, introducing it with a slick demo video. Benko acknowledged that the production quality of the video was "definitely higher-end than usual," but a company spokesperson insisted that the clip was only designed to "get people excited about the future of research," rather than tease an impending product release. The researcher also said that to his knowledge, Samsung is not involved with the production of IllumiRoom.

Neither Benko nor Jones would provide a timeline for bringing IllumiRoom to market. Its name, they noted, is only a working title rather than a brand, and they repeated that they have no involvement with its commercialization, which remains under the domain of Microsoft's product and strategy teams. They acknowledge, however, that they have been working closely with both Kinect and Xbox product teams. "There's a dialogue going on continuously there," Benko said.

"We've only scratched the surface."

According to the researchers, much of IllumiRoom's success will hinge upon content created explicitly for its immersive platform. Jones says they've created a basic API for game developers to use, noting that it's relatively simple to turn illusions on and off. More complicated actions, however, will require a bit more work. If a grenade rolls out of the screen and into a user's living room, for instance, Jones and game developers will have to decide how to execute that transition from 2D to 3D space, and, as he says, "How much we have to abstract away" from game developers. "That's something we've only scratched the surface of," he notes. Microsoft has conducted informal user studies with a handful of game developers, though the company has not begun talking to external designers about creating games for IllumiRoom.

Jones and Benko plan to tweak the system further this summer (with a public demo at SIGGRAPH in July) though they remain tight-lipped about IllumiRoom's broader future. When asked if he could definitively say that the technology would not be integrated within the next Xbox at some point, Benko repeated his familiar refrain: "It's just a research project."

Tom Warren contributed to this report.