You may recognise Merge's distinct, purple mobile VR headset, but its new device is where it really hopes to stand out. The company just announced the availability of the Merge Cube, an AR 'toy' that puts a new spin on augmented reality.
Working with a headset (or just a smartphone if you'd prefer), the Cube transforms before the eyes of the user, from what looks like an Indiana Jones prop into a bustling cityscape, a beating human heart, a tiny playable knock-off Minecraft – anything a developer can think to make, really.
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We first tried Merge Cube back at CES, and while it could have felt like yet another AR gimmick, it quickly charmed us with the quality of its AR tracking. A combination of computer vision and some very intricate markings on the cube make for holograms that's aren't just dense but impressively robust.
"We offer a depth of detail that allows for close-up visuals, so when the computer vision is looking at just a portion of the cube there's enough detail to keep track of it," Merge founder and CEO Franklin Lyons told Wareable. The cube is designed to be rotated freely on one axis without distorting the AR effect. In one demo, the cube exploded into an entire replica solar system that I could rotate and even interact with using the headset's button.
In another, all six faces became a grass canvas I could build and remove blocks on. It was essentially Minecraft by another name, but since when did kids care about IP? Perspective is a problem with some AR right now, so the the ability to hold this tiny ecosystem right up to my eyes and appreciate the details was, for a kid's toy, rather exciting. Trickett said one company is taking all of NASA's global data to make real-time AR weather patterns, while the Natural History Museum is trying it out to make AR versions of fossils that kids can now hold in their hands.
"Merge's core audience is younger users, we just really believe they're the ones that are going to adopt virtual reality and augmented reality en masse," said Lyons, who uses the portmanteau "edu-tainment" to describe the category Merge is putting itself in. And indeed it seems likely the Merge Cube will have more appeal to a younger demographic.
"We want this to feel like technology from the future, an ancient alien artifact that doesn't have any specific IP or design or anything so it could still be something generic or interesting you'll put on your desk."
Merge is also launching its Merge Miniverse, a portal designed to spotlight the best (and age-appropriate) AR games and experiences. "Most VR headsets, aside from Samsung's and Google's closed ecosystems, aren't providing the user with quality content," Lyons said. "They're basically left to search the app store. We think that's a terrible way to onboard society onto VR and AR."
The Cube doesn't require a Merge headset to use – any headset with support for an AR passthrough will work – and Merge has opened up the SDK to developers. It's also working on a mobile VR controller, described by Trickett as "almost identical" to the Gear VR's, which Merge will open source to devs. Both Trickett and fellow co-founder Franklin Lyons say they want to create the standards for the mass mobile AR/VR market. "For the first time ever there's going to be a universal marker that developers can build more and more experiences on," said Trickett about the Cube.
In the US Merge is now selling the Cube exclusively through Wal-Mart for $14.99, and online through its own site. But the mobile VR market has become incredibly saturated; earlier this year IDC predicted that the VR/AR headset market will continue to grow at an annual rate of 58%, with mobile headsets currently leading the charge.
"It's taken some time to educate retailers in the consumer market on quality levels," said Lyons. "We're starting to see that dust settle. So now our headset's going to be put alongside a much smaller array of products. I think that's where the industry is going: more refinement, more consumer education, more retailer education."