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Jeri Ellsworth’s unique AR glasses are back from the dead

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Tilt Five is starting its Kickstarter at $299

In 2013, we brought you the story of how two Valve engineers walked away with the company’s augmented reality glasses. In 2017, long after they blew past their Kickstarter goal, we reported how their company wound up dead.

But now, more than six years later, inventor Jeri Ellsworth is trying the same idea again — a pair of lightweight AR glasses that project their light onto a reflective game board, letting you play 3D board games, video games and interactive Dungeons & Dragons campaigns that seem to live inside — or leap up off of — your table. Her new company Tilt Five is launching on Kickstarter today with kits starting at $299.

It’s still as intriguing and limiting an idea as it originally was in 2013. On the plus side, the headset has a 110-degree field of view, wider than any AR headset on the market today. The virtual objects should always be in focus, unlike with many headsets, and you can realistically block your vision of them with a hand.

That’s because the Tilt Five glasses don’t need fancy waveguides and micro-mirrors to direct their light to your eyes like, say, a Microsoft HoloLens. Instead, they have tiny HD projectors that fire towards a retroreflective surface, and — the same way a stop sign catches your car’s headlights — that light bounces right back to you, where the glasses filter it into stereo 3D images. That, plus a camera for head-tracking that lets you lean right down to the game board and check out the game up close.

And Ellsworth’s latest glasses no longer look like a heavy, hot mess of glue and chips — the company’s polished prototypes, which it recently showed off at PAX West, are down to just 90 grams in weight, similar to those from Chinese startup Nreal and roughly 2-3 times the weight of a pair of Ray-Bans. That’s partly because the glasses don’t include processing power — you’ll plug them into a phone, tablet or PC using a USB cable. They come with a variety of nosepieces to help you fit them over regular glasses, too.

The catch is still that you’ll need to use the included, folding retroreflective game board, which could easily limit where and when you’ll be able to play — and maybe price, because $299 just gets you enough for one player, when you’ll probably want to have four for the kind of multiplayer dungeon crawling adventures that seem like a slam dunk for the system.

I’m not sure I could convince my buds to shell out $299 to play the best game of Diablo or Divinity they’ve ever laid eyes on, even if those games had been confirmed. But with support for Dungeons & Dragons (and other pen-and-paper RPG) conversion software Fantasy Grounds, perhaps diehard RPG fans will be the early adopters these glasses need to truly get off the ground.

The dungeon master feature, above, looks particularly cool.

Keep in mind that the past few years haven’t been kind to AR headset companies (see links below), and it’s not clear this one will be the winner that gets app and game developers on board, especially with big companies like Apple and Facebook yet to play their cards, with the potential to suck some air out of the room. $299 is a lot of money to wager, even if the tech is really impressive.

You can read and see a lot more at Tilt Five’s Kickstarter page if you’re interested, including how you can use the game board’s kickstand for other kinds of games, and see footage shot through the lens of the glasses themselves. You won’t be able to see stereo 3D that way, but it’s more proof that the basic idea works.