CastAR wants to bring affordable augmented reality to the masses

CastAR co-founder tells us about the company's vision of an AR future
CastAR wants affordable AR for all

With the explosion in VR, all is still quiet on the AR front. But it shouldn't be long until AR has its day in the spotlight. Epson, Magic Leap, Pokemon GO, Meta and of course, Microsoft HoloLens are all trying to make the best experience possible and when it happens, there's a possibility augmented reality could surpass virtual reality for practical purposes.

However, if they end up like Google Glass - expensive and dead in the water - we may never get to experience the full potential of AR.

Essential reading: What's in store for Google Glass 2.0?

HoloLens has finally shipped out the developers and costs a pretty penny too so we can only imagine what mass consumer prices will be like. That's where CastAR comes in.

The company wants to provide an all-inclusive price point - about how much a console costs - where you and friends can join in on the augmented reality fun.

That's not to say it's the ideal setup for everyone looking for an AR experience. But CastAR inventor, co-founder and chief hardware engineer Jeri Ellsworth sees an opportunity that's ripe for the taking.

VR is just the beginning - AR will be bigger

VR is the tip of the iceberg, and then everything else is going to be AR and mixed reality type experiences.

CastAR has been around for several years and even had a successful Kickstarter a while back. Now, the team is getting larger than ever before with a projected ship date of 2017 for the AR glasses.

Before that, Ellsworth and fellow co-founder/CEO Rick Johnson worked at Valve where she was electrical engineer and Johnson a programmer. It was there they met and realized augmented, not virtual, was their passion.

"When I was working at Valve, I was hired on to be the lead of the hardware department and to put the hardware team together. I was tasked with researching ways to bring more users to the Steam platform. So we researched virtual reality and augmented reality, game consoles, motion controllers.

"I got really excited about AR, some of the team got excited about VR. And it turns out that Valve's core demographic is really more interested in VR."

Ellsworth felt like VR was great but through tinkering late at night in the hardware labs working on a project, she discovered how to create a working prototype for AR glasses. She realized AR might be easier to grasp on a larger scale than VR and decided to form her own company with Johnson's help.

"VR is the tip of the iceberg, and then everything else is going to be AR and mixed reality type experiences. I just saw it (AR) as a much bigger demographic that I could touch. So Rick and I spun the company out and took the project on our own."

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In the long run, she feels like mixed reality is where the space will eventually head. It's been said before that HoloLens will be combine AR and VR features when (or if) if ships out.

Though VR is just starting out, its audience is far more niche with early adopters and gamers doling out cash for the headsets. It's possible VR will see a wider use, but that may take a while. The experience of AR or mixed reality could be more inclusive. Ellsworth used her own father as an example of a person who might use AR but not VR.

"I talk to my dad all the time about what I'm doing and I try to explain it to him and how it applies to him. It's hard for me to imagine him doing a big VR experience. He loves Nascar racing - so when I describe it, I say, 'Dad, with our system, we could take the GPS location of all the race cars and we could plot them out and you could see them going around in holographic form on the table and you could have the oil pressure and RPM's, and all the stats that you really care about on your favorite car, seeing it going around in front of you.

"And you could still watch the TV with this personalized view where you could look at different angles. He gets really excited about it. It's a good feeling and shows we're on the right track of what mass market folks would want."

What's next for CastAR

CastAR is on schedule to ship in late 2017 to the next round of devs, especially now that the company's received funding from Andy Rubin, founder of Android and Playground (at Silicon Valley startup incubator). Shortly after that, Ellsworth says the glasses should be ready for the general public.

We're going for the self-contained, keep it fun kind of experience that's a reasonable price.

The next device will see several changes including reduced weight, different style and improvements to image quality and stability.So far, only one developer prototype kit has shipped out to Kickstarter backers. But the company is currently on iteration 17 because there have been so many versions along the way, showing just how much time CastAR has spent developing the wearable in three years.

"The industrial design is going to be different. Right now, it's (the prototype) mostly functional. I did a lot of the design so it's not really stylish so we're spending a lot of time working on the design language, reducing the weight and making it more comfortable to wear, make sure it can fit everyone's different faces and head shape."

Essential reading: Best AR and VR headsets

A board will also accompany the glasses. Playing will be as easy as flipping open the game board, starting the power button. Some may see it as a restrictive way to use the glasses but Ellsworth thinks differently.

"It's going to be board based. I think that some folks might think it's a limitation but it's actually really nice for the game developer. There's a fixed dimension to work with. Some game devs don't know how big your table is, or if you have a bottle of soda sitting there - what do you for the game?"

Ellsworth says you'll have to clear off your table or large surfaces anyway and a board - made from special material that's especially reflective - shouldn't be an issue. The addition of the board also lessens the cost to manufacture the eyewear and allows for lighter designs.

"We can make it very light and unlike some of the other AR headsets where you have to adjust to your IPD (interpupillary distance), ours is immune to that since we just project to the surface."

Because there's no adjustment needed kids and adults alike can wear the CastAR device without first needing to figure out IPDs. Hopefully the final iteration sees this through especially since most AR glasses require a lot of tweaking to use.

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Over time, the company has moved from a PC peripheral to a self-contained device. Meaning, the glasses are wireless and battery powered. By using certain techniques to reduce manufacturing costs and pairing functionality with a game board, CastAR is planning on a reasonable asking price which Ellsworth thinks may work out better for people looking to cut costs.

"A lot of folks are going towards the brute force, high end 'buy the headset, buy the thousand dollar PC' route. We're going for the self-contained, keep it fun kind of experience that's a reasonable price. We're not compromising on the quality."

If CastAR can create a comfortable device with a large FOV (field-of-view) - its glasses are currently 70 horizontal and 40 vertical versus HoloLens which is like standing two feet away from a 15-inch monitor - it may be the AR experience we've all been waiting for.

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