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Eyes-on the CastAR, augmented-reality glasses built by former Valve engineers

Alex Wawro | Nov. 8, 2013
Strapping tiny computers to your face is popular enough now that it's easy to lump Technical Illusions' CastAR augmented-reality glasses in with Google Glass, the Oculus Rift and other high-tech eyewear.

Strapping tiny computers to your face is popular enough now that it's easy to lump Technical Illusions' CastAR augmented-reality glasses in with Google Glass, the Oculus Rift and other high-tech eyewear.

But doing so does the CastAR a disservice. I tested a CastAR prototype on the show floor at GDC Next, and when the final version ships next year I think it will provide a significantly different experience than either Google Glass or the Rift. Rather than intruding into your vision or taking over it entirely, CastAR creators Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson designed their glasses to only overlay the digital world atop the real one when you choose to look at specific sheets of retro-reflective material.

It's a small but critical difference. The CastAR glasses are much less nauseating than the Rift dev kit, because you can see objects in the real world and thus maintain your balance and equilibrium while you're moving your head around. Ellsworth and Johnson built these glasses to play 3D games without throwing up in the process, but after putting the prototype through its paces I think this hardware has the potential to change the way we look at spreadsheets, web browsers, and all kinds of software beyond the gaming sphere.

Augmented reality so bright, you've gotta wear shades

The experience of using the CastAR glasses is hard to describe; if you've ever looked at the world through a pair of active-shutter 3D glasses, it's sort of like that. The difference is that the CastAR frames have a pair of LCD micro-projectors mounted on top of the frame, one over each eye.

Each projects a slightly offset version of the same image at 1280-by-720 resolution, and if you look at a special piece of material you'll see a shimmering three-dimensional scene reflected back at you. The images are piped to the glasses via HDMI from a nearby PC, and that plus the power required to run the glasses means we probably won't see a wireless version anytime soon.

Games running on the CastAR look a bit like the holographic chess game from Star Wars, except that instead of projecting out of the board the images projected by the CastAR appear to move around inside the material. If you've ever watched a 3D movie where the simulated depth stretched into the screen instead of jumping out at you, looking at CastAR software looks very similar.

How it works
The retro-reflective material that makes the CastAR system work looks like nothing so much as a swath of grey construction paper—until you look at it with a pair of active CastAR glasses. It's very similar to the reflective material you see on road signs and safety vests, it's incredibly cheap and you can arrange it however you like. Plus, since the material reflects the light directly back at your eyes it's possible to have multiple people wearing CastAR glasses looking at the same sheet of material and seeing completely different scenes.

 

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