Not so long ago, I would have mistook the augmented reality headset CastAR for magic or martian technology. In my demo at last week’s Game Developers Conference, the glasses made a real coffee table look like an animated game of Battleship, in which the ocean floor dipped through the wood and mortars arced inches above the surface. In another mode, toy army men fought one another, firing their plastic machine guns behind cover of a tiny car. Then two battalions of tanks traded artillery on a European countryside. While it's far from the spectacular press images, above, CastAR's augmented reality is no less an unforgettable experience.
And yet, CastAR is a warning of how quickly technology degrades from "a preview of the future" to "an expectation of the present." The technology won’t even be available publicly until 2017, and yet, in the flooded augmented and virtual reality market of 2016, I wonder if the futuristic headset was already a thing of the past.
CastAR stands out with its pedigree. Co-founders Rick Johnson and Jeri Ellsworth left video game publisher and incubator Valve, bringing their augmented reality headset with them. Ellsworth handles hardware; Johnson, software; together they’ve attracted big name partnerships and co-workers, a $15-million venture capital funding, and over a million dollars in Kickstarter pledges — the latter of which the CastAR team returned to their supporters, who will still receive headsets. So along with the experience, they have money, talent, and support from well-rewarded early adopters. What the tech lacks is name recognition.
Is the future a thing of the past?
CastAR — and augmented reality, broadly — lives in the shadow of virtual reality giants like Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Sony’s PlayStation VR, and the HTC Vive, produced in partnership with CastAR’s original home, Valve. All three VR headsets will be available this year, propped by expensive marketing campaigns, media attention, and of course, dozens of flashy video games. If you tossed a rock at GDC, it would strike a stranger in their vulnerable, VR-wearing head.
Unlike VR headsets, which conceal the world around you, plopping the wearer into an immersive 3D world, Cast AR and other augmented reality headsets supplement the real world with 3D graphics. Microsoft’s Hololens, the best known AR prototype, produces holographic images onto glasses, creating the illusion of animated objects in the real world. CastAR isn’t quite so complex.
The augmented reality headset operates in three parts: computer, glasses, and mat. The computer provides the power to produce the image, which is projected from cameras on the rims of the glasses onto a reflective mat. The image then bounces back to the glasses, which feature head tracking and rapid, tiny shudders that work together so that the wearer sees on the mat a lifelike 3D image. Say virtual tanks are invading a mini town on the table: the wearer could lean in close to see detailing on the metal, or crane their head over the battlefield for a bird’s eye view. The 3D objects look as if they’re actually on the table — for the person wearing the CastAR glasses, that is. For anyone else, they just see a reflective gray mat.
Sounds promising, right? But the tech has some unusual odds stacked against it. For one, it arrives in 2017, a year after virtual reality has its shot to make 3D worlds seem not quite so extraordinary in the eyes of the public. CastAR also doesn’t have the support of a parent company with bottomless coffers, like Microsoft or Facebook. And it lacks in competition, for better but also for worse: the ubiquity and standard format of VR headsets have attracted thousands of designers, video game tool makers, and worldwide conferences. CastAR will need to entice developers to can port or design games specifically for its unique format.
CastAR's limitations could hone its focus
CastAR’s limitations could be its advantages. The lower-cost projection system should allow CastAR to be cheaper than any high-end VR headset: the team expects the consumer package — the computing unit, headset, and mat — to be priced competitively with a modern video game console. By comparison, the cheapest VR headset, PlayStation VR, is priced at $399, and that doesn’t include the PlayStation 4 or camera accessory required to power the hardware.
CastAR’s viewing mat also flatters table-top game design. Rick Johnson spoke at length about his desire for an augmented reality version of Dungeons and Dragons. Augmented versions of tabletop games remove the boring work of tabletop games, like cleaning up Jenga pieces or calculating the math of Monopoly. The popular digital card game Hearthstone shows how board game design can be improved with the help of a little computing.
The CastAR’s isn’t an all-encompassing experience, a fact that unexpectedly like a blessing after dozens of demos inside the sensory-deprivation chambers of VR headsets and noise-canceling headphones. I played the Battleship demo with my friend and colleague Adi Robertson, and being able to see her reactions as we traded shots in the virtual seas made for a much more enjoyable and accessible experience.
By focusing on the tabletop, CastAR has the opportunity to hone a trademark form and style. Maybe the top-down view makes CastAR a preferred option for viewing competitive eSports, like Dota 2 and League of Legends. Or maybe it’s a high-end solution for board game fans and family game night advocates. Or maybe CastAR will supplement home theaters, turning the coffee table into a social media tab. Whatever the case, CastAR will need a niche, because in 2016, magic is no longer a good enough gimmick.
I imagine it’s a terrifying time for the great minds in the augmented and virtual reality business, but for consumers, this is a best case scenario. Brilliant, determined, talented minds aren’t just creating novel tech, their fighting for our attention, and the winners will create something revolutionary in the process.
The question, though, is who will those winners be?