On our last day at CES 2014, we got to go hands-on with an early prototype of a most interesting pair of Augmented and Virtual Reality glasses. Currently in development, CastAR can project holographic-like 3D imagery right in front of you.
Louis Pasteur once said “chance favors only the prepared mind”. That quote is especially relevant to the story of how Technical Illusions' castAR Projected Augmented Reality glasses came to be. Co-founder Jeri Ellsworth is a hardware hacker, self-taught chip designer, and pinball machine expert. She was one of the first hires at Valve Software’s hardware lab, where she worked on some of the company’s wilder projects, including what eventually became the Steam Controller.
In May of 2012, while experimenting with “near-eye display” Virtual Reality (VR) technology, Jeri accidentally put an optical component in backwards, projecting the image out into the environment. At the same time, there just so happened to be a piece of retro-reflective material (the same stuff that makes street signs glow at night when your headlights hit them) in the lab, which the image was projected onto. When Jeri saw this, she experimented further and realized that projecting Augmented Reality (AR) content, instead of having it close to the eye, could solve a lot of the issues folks have with more traditional AR and VR concepts. While this discovery could be considered happenstance, it still took the right person to understand its true value. One with a “prepared mind”.
It then took another set of fortuitous circumstances to turn that discovery into a product you should be able to buy in 2015. Jeri continued to experiment with projected AR at Valve, building a series of prototypes, starting with the unwieldy, painful-to-wear, and appropriately named “head crab”.
Valve's "Headcrab" Prototype (via Technical Illusions)
To help her on the software side, Jeri recruited fellow pinball enthusiast Rick Johnson, formerly of Raven Software, Gearbox, and one of the three people who started the Linux cabal at Valve (eventually leading to SteamOS). Over the next six months, they continued to iterate the prototypes, making them smaller and more comfortable to wear. But in a surprising turn of events, in February 2013 both Jeri and Rick found themselves without jobs.
Valve had laid them off, along with a number of other people in the hardware lab. And while a reason was never formally given (Jeri and Rick say that they still don’t know exactly why), it’s possible that their vision for AR glasses just didn’t jive with Valve’s future, which seems to be more focused on VR, especially in light of recent announcements.
Although the pair was no longer working at Valve, they were able to continue improving their AR glasses; Gabe Newell and Valve’s lawyers allowed Jeri and Rick to take the technology with them.
CastAR HD Prototype
It wasn’t until the May 2013 Bay Area Maker Faire that Jeri and Rick revealed to the world the company they were starting (Technical Illusions) and its brainchild, castAR. After showing off the concept at numerous other trade shows and conventions, slowing building interest, they launched a Kickstarter in October 2013, eventually raising $1.05 million. That was more than double the original goal of $400,000. They heavily involved their backers, and some of the suggestions added to the campaign will later be incorporated into castAR.