Former Valve staffers unveil CastAR

May 20, 2013 | 11:11

Tags: #ar #augmented-reality #jeri-ellsworth #maker-faire #rfid #rick-johnson #steam-box

Companies: #castar #technical-illusions #valve

A pair of former Valve employees have announced the formation of a new company dedicated to one thing: bringing to market the augmented reality technology they were hoping to develop for Valve's hardware arm.

Hackers Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson, formerly employed by Valve prior to the layoffs in February that saw 25 employees leave the company, have launched the company Technical Illusions with a view to releasing a system of augmented reality gaming devices called CastAR.

Unveiled at the Maker Faire in San Mateo this weekend, and written up by Make, the project uses LCD-shutter glasses with two tiny projectors mounted on them to produce a virtual reality environment that is projected wherever the wearer is looking.

The system works by having the viewer peer through the glasses at a specially-constructed retro-reflective panel edged with infra-red LEDs. The projectors, one mounted over each lens, send out the augmented reality images while the shutter glasses work to ensure that each eye only receives images from its own projector - creating the illusion of depth. Finally, the webcam - mounted on the nose-bridge of the glasses - tracks the LEDs to allow the system to adjust the projected images according to the motion of the user's head, in a similar manner to the famous 3D demos created by Johnny Chung Lee using Nintendo Wiimotes.

The result: the reflective surface becomes a window into a virtual 3D world, with users able to move around a virtual objects, peering round its corners to view areas that would otherwise be invisible. The head-tracking system can also be used to directly control a game, with visitors to the Technical Illusions tent at the event being treated to a flying game. Accessories are also in development, with an LED mounted on the end of a chopstick creating a 'magic wand' that allows the user to play a Jenga-like title and RFID-enabled playing cards already in the prototype stage. The system even allows for multiplayer gaming on a single surface, ensuring that users only see their own perspective.

'These demos are the start and the glasses are early prototypes,' the pair have announced. 'Each system not only lets you play, but also includes a complete development kit. You can get up and running quickly using our simple scripting language, or go as deep as you want by connecting our API to your game. And don’t worry, this is an open platform. If you make something, you can give it away or sell it anywhere you want.'

As with most such projects, CastAR combines a series of existing products into a single, innovative creation: a pair of liquid-crystal shutter glasses, familiar to anyone with an active 3D monitor or TV, is combined with two pico-projectors, a reflective surface, a small webcam and a shedload of infra-red LEDs to create a highly complex new creation.

It is this complexity that is likely to be the major barrier to the technology taking off. In particular, the requirement for a retro-reflective surface (one that aims the reflection straight back at you) makes this technology unusable in a normal living room, for instance. However, it could be used in a "holo-deck" type environment where the walls and ceiling are covered in reflective material and the user - indeed multiple users - are able to navigate a virtual world.

Thus fair, Technical Illusions has not provided a release date or pricing for the hardware.
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