CastAR shows how it will turn your tabletop into an animated gaming world

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Augmented reality gaming glasses startup CastAR recently sent out a taste of what the future of tabletop games will be like. Using its special AR glasses, CastAR can overlay animations on top of the real world, creating a “mixed reality” environment that makes you feel like you’re immersed inside a tabletop game experience.

The company has raised $15 million in funding from Android creator Andy Rubin. The creators are among the optimists who believe that augmented reality can become a $90 billion market by 2020 (according to tech adviser Digi-Capital). Jeri Ellsworth, cofounder of CastAR, will be one of our speakers at the second annual GamesBeat Summit 2016, an event that’s set for May 3 and May 4 at the scenic Cavallo Point Lodge in Sausalito, California.

CastAR wandCastAR isn’t launching until 2017, but it has a very different and creative product compared to other virtual reality headsets on the market. And it comes from a very interesting set of hardware tinkerers and software designers. Ellsworth taught herself how to design chips and became known in 2004 for creating a Commodore 64 system on a chip with a joystick. She went on to become a hardware hacker and was part of a team of researchers at Valve, the maker of the Half-Life games and the new SteamVR virtual reality technology.

Ellsworth left Valve in 2013 to cofound Technical Illusions with fellow Valve technologist Rick Johnson to create the CastAR system. They raised money on Kickstarter and eventually moved from Seattle to Palo Alto, Calif., in 2014 with their team. The company renamed itself as CastAR, after its product name, and it is preparing to ship its first generation product for its Kickstarter backers later this year. The company how has about 30 employees.

Johnson, the chief software engineer, showed me a prototype of the working AR glasses with several different types of games.

“Board games are very applicable to this type of space,” Johnson said. “We also think it’s good for role-playing games, real-time strategy games, racing games, and others. There’s a lot of experiences that translate well, as well as titles we are developing internally that will be great. We are focused on an entertainment product.”

The CastAR glasses can project 3D holographic images in front of your eyes so that you can either feel like you’re seeing a virtual layer on top of the real world, or you can feel like you’re immersed inside a game world. It works with glasses and a reflective sheet-like material called “retro-reflective.” While you could theoretically use the reflective sheets to animate an entire room, CastAR has decided to focus on using smaller sheets for tabletop gaming. You’ll need a Android-based “mini console” to operate it, along with the glasses and a wand. You can put the sheets on anything, including walls, tables, or the floor.

The first demo put me in control of a toy soldier, running around on top of a battlefield in a city. It was sitting atop a table, and my toy soldier roamed around the buildings in search of enemies. Johnson also controlled a toy soldier, and we wandered around. I fired my gun at the enemies and took some of them down. It was hard to target, but I could move around the table and see something from a different point of view. The game supports 5-versus-5 multiplayer.

CastAR also created a demo of the classic Battleship board game, sitting on top of a table. The ships fired at each other, with salvos flying in arcs. When you look at your opponent across the table, you can see the person’s reactions. That’s what makes it fun.

“We see a shared environment,” Johnson said. “We can’t see each other’s ships. We can see a harbor together and point to the scoreboard. You can take this concept to Dungeons & Dragons, where each person can see the perspective of their game, unique to the character. A human might see something different from what a dwarf sees. The Dungeon Master can see the entire view of the game and know where the monsters will come from next.”

Johnson also showed me a nonplayable demo of World of Tanks. It was a playback of a match between real players. You can see the battlefield of hills, trees, rocks, and grass. The tanks roll across the countryside, and you can see an overhead view of the environment. When the enemy tank comes into your field of view, you can see it. If it’s not within your field of view, it remains hidden. Likewise, your opponent in a multiplayer game wouldn’t be able to see you until your tank comes into the open.

The tanks discovered each other and started trading fire. World of Tanks publisher Wargaming gave CastAR permission to make the demo, but it isn’t a definite project yet. This took about a couple of weeks to get up and running. Johnson said it is easy to port existing games to run on the tech.

“We’re trying to make developers aware of our system and get them to start thinking about content and new types of gameplay,” Johnson said. “That’s the critical aspect. We don’t want to see just new versions of games you have played before. We want to extend video gaming into the realm of mixed reality.”

In the past, I saw demos like a marble-pushing game inspired by the old Marble Madness, I was once again able to move around a marble through a landscape by tilting my head. I found it very easy to control things in the virtual world, but I could also see everything happening around me the because the glasses don’t obstruct your view of the real world. The imagery was quite sharp.

I also used a wand with the glasses to play a Jenga game. I used the wand to slice the bricks. I also was able to look at a chess game that resembled the battle chess game in the original Star Wars movie. I could touch creatures with the wand and knock them off the table into a lava pool below. The graphics were crisp, and the field of view had no limitations, in contrast to Microsoft’s HoloLens holographic glasses, which have a more limited 20-degree field of view. The CastAR glasses have a 70-degree field of view. But VR imagery looks much sharper than anything I’ve seen yet with CastAR.

CastAR estimates that the whole system will cost about as much as a game console. Johnson said that the graphics will get better, as well as the precision of the wand.

“Playground has hardware experts who are giving us access to their studio,” Johnson said. “They have experts in optical, manufacturing, sources, industrial design, and user experience. We get to utilize that as part of our company. We are embedded there and see them every day.

“At the end of the day, it has to be fun. We’re engineering it to be manufacturable and at a price point consumers can afford. Our core decisions revolve around making it fun. We also want it to be comfortable on your head so you can play it for a long time.”

In 2016, the company is hoping to gather more developer support. And in 2017, it is targeting a commercial launch. CastAR has a Wii-like feel to it. The promise is in physical, social fun. But it’s going to have a tough battle standing out from the VR headsets that are backed by major companies this year. Facebook’s Oculus, HTC, and Sony are all launching high-fidelity VR headsets that will immerse you in virtual worlds. The question is whether CastAR, which puts you halfway into a virtual world, will be able to compete. So far, it does tabletop better. But that may not be enough.

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