The next generation of consoles is about a month away. As much as an improvement the Xbox One and PS4 will be over their predecessors, they aren't making many changes in terms of how we actually interact with games. Kinect has been the biggest and most recent console innovation, but it hasn't lived up to the potential of the Milo demonstration that supposedly showed what Kinect was capable of. The real innovation has come from smaller companies. The Oculus Rift, for example, is an amazing device that really does completely change how we play games. When I tried it, I found it to be an astonishing effort considering it was pre-production hardware. The best part is that it's not another virtual-reality gimmick, and it can be used with software that exists today. While we wait for consumer versions of the Oculus Rift, I've found myself very interested in another piece of hardware called the castAR Virtual Reality Glasses.
castAR was previously shown off at Maker Faire 2013. The company behind it, Technical Illusions, recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $400,000. At the time of this writing, $413,000 has been raised in about two days. If all goes well, the castAR will be shipped to backers that pledged $189 or more by September 2014. What I like about this product is it's not really a competitor to the Oculus Rift. It has the potential to create more social gaming experiences while maintaining all the inherent geekiness of interacting in an augmented reality/virtual-reality space.
So what is this thing anyway? Basically, it’s a pair of special glasses with two micro-projectors built into the frame. These projectors aren't exactly new technology. You can buy handheld projectors right now that can project small and large photos and videos across a surface. The difference with the castAR is that it projects a 3D image. Complementing the projectors is a camera that picks up on infrared markers across a special material that's laid out across your play surface. The markers let the glasses know where your head is positioned, so you can move around the projection accurately. The heavy lifting of the experience is handled by a computer with an HDMI cable for video and a USB cable to control the camera.
Right off the bat, I see this having a lot of potential for board and strategy games. In theory, you'll be able to see one part of the field, stand up and move around the 3D image to get a better look of the other side. You could also flip and rotate the field around using what the company is calling the Magic Wand. The pieces you use can also be tracked using RFID technology and the RFID tracking grid for the castAR. Depending on what the developer wants to do, it's possible to show things like stats that you can't see unless you're wearing the castAR glasses. This immediately makes castAR a great option for those who want something that's like the Oculus Rift, but not nearly as solitary. However, if you want to go off into your own little world, there's going to be a VR clip-on available that will place your entire area of vision into whatever software you're using.
Another thing that's great about castAR and the Oculus Rift is their accessibility on mobile devices. These things don't have to be locked to PCs. Technical Illusions is looking into Android compatibility, and the Oculus Rift team expressed a similar interest to me earlier this year. These products can be groundbreaking for both stationary and mobile gaming devices all at the same time. It's really exciting stuff.
Best of all is the price. I know Kickstarters are inherently risky, but $189 is a pretty good price for the castAR. The Oculus Rift development kit is $300, and I'm hoping the consumer version won’t much more than that. The next generation of gaming won't be dictated by the specific boxes we use; It'll be enhanced by the accessories we use with them. Some of the coolest futuristic gaming gear from yesterday is nearly at our doorstep. I’m ready to take the plunge.