Technical Illusions Shows Off Its CastAR Augmented Reality Glasses Prototype at World Maker Faire 2013

Technical Illusions — a company founded by engineer Jeri Ellsworth and game programmer Rick Johnson — showed off prototype versions of its CastAR augmented reality glasses at World Maker Faire 2013 in New York City. The glasses work by projecting an image onto a retroreflective surface using two micro projectors on the glasses frame. The reflective surface then bounces the image back through the glasses, giving the wearer the illusion that they’re looking at a 3D hologram. The glasses also contain an LED tracking system for accurate head tracking. Players can use an ordinary game controller or a special motion wand similar to a Wii Nunchuk (which is also currently in the prototype stage) to interact with video games or other programs designed to work with CastAR.

The CastAR augmented reality glasses have a wide range of applications in gaming, education, and professional work. In one example posed on Technical Illusions’ website, users could play a social, multiplayer table-top game like Dungeons & Dragons using a virtual map and their own, physical Miniatures that can be tracked using RFIDs or LEDs. At Maker Faire, Johnson told me about a shark researcher who is using a CastAR prototype to visualize his tracking data in a unique way. One of the demos the team has created to showcase the new system is a chess game akin to the holographic chess played in Star Wars.

The CastAR team chose to pursue augmented reality glasses rather than a virtual reality headset like the Oculus Rift out of “personal preference,” saying that virtual reality immerses players in a different, virtual world but cuts them off from the real world almost entirely. With CastAR, the team hopes to engage users in social, interactive experiences with other people in real life that are enhanced by the gaming peripheral.

I had the opportunity to test out the CastAR prototype at World Maker Faire 2013 in New York City with two different demos — a Jenga-like simulation that involved knocking blocks over using the prototype USB wand and AngryBots, a top-down third person shooter demo for Unity played with a standard Xbox controller. The CastAR prototype glasses fit easily over my prescription glasses, adding only a little additional weight (about 350grams) to the bridge of my nose, and the heat from the FPGA emulator chip sitting atop the frames was noticeable, but not uncomfortable. To an onlooker, the projection from the glasses onto the retroreflective surface appears very dim, but the 640×480 resolution image was clear and bright when viewed through the CastAR glasses. Though it was initially disorienting to have the entire game move as I turned my head to look around the environment, I didn’t experience any motion sickness (which I’ve had problems with during demos of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset). The demos shown at Maker Faire didn’t fully show off CastAR’s myriad uses, but the product is still in the early stages of development and shows a lot of potential as a unique gaming peripheral. In an email, Ellsworth said that Technical Illusions plans for the final production units of the CastAR glasses to weigh less than 100 grams (closer to the weight of ordinary sunglasses), produce much less heat, and project a 720p image to both eyes.

Technical Illusions has plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund further development of CastAR in mid-October, and will be bundling the CastAR glasses, a USB wand, a retroreflective mat, and the SDK for Windows and Android as backer rewards. The team plans to add support for iOS and Linux in the future.