We got Cardboard for VR--a simple, unbelievably inexpensive viewer for virtual reality--so why not something similar for mixed reality (MR), too? With its $30 ZapBox (the Kickstarter is now live), that’s what Zappar is shooting for.
What It Is
Zapbox uses your existing smartphone, a cardboard HMD with a head strap, two hand “controllers,” a lens adapter for your smartphone camera, and a small pile of paper markers.
Simply put, you start by peppering a space with the markers--this is how you get positional tracking--and then you drop your phone into the HMD. You get a view of the real world via a live feed from the smartphone’s camera, and as you look towards the markers, the camera--augmented by the lens adapter--reads them and produces images. Because the controllers also have markers, they get tracked, too, and you can use them to interact with the augmented realities you see.
The markers, though limiting in some ways, are a masterstroke, because they enable a form of positional tracking and require no active electronics.
You may recognize Zappar from our past coverage of its simple but effective AR technology, and the company has harnessed it for mixed reality purposes--except that instead of waiting a few seconds for your phone to read a zap, it picks up the data from the markers in what promises to be real time.
At launch, the ZapBox will come with a handful of experiences developed internally by Zappar, including:
Painting - ZapBrush, where you can paint in 3D space and walk around your creationsMini-golf - play mini-golf in your hallway complete with an animated windmillDancing mini-game - Wii Fit meets brain training, a fun mini-game to test your dexterityXylophone - Play a virtual musical instrumentExplore Mars - Send a probe to the surface of Mars and discover fun facts
However, Zappar’s pride and joy is the software platforms that enable you to make your own apps, games, experiences, content, and so on. ZapWorks Studio is now free for non-commercial use; otherwise, you’ll need to peruse pricing, etc. here.
ZapBox will work with iPhone 6 or later models (but not the iPhone SE), as well as Android phones running Android 4.1 or later (Android 5 or later is ideal) with a gyroscope and at least 4.5-inch 720p display. For reference, the whole kit is compatible with Google Cardboard apps. One even could, technically, hack a Google Cardboard HMD to do the same thing the ZapBox HMD does.
What It Isn’t
Before anyone breathlessly compares this $30 MR dev kit to the $3,000 HoloLens MR dev kit, let’s tap the brakes a bit. From the video above and what we’ve seen ourselves of Zappar’s technology, the ZapBox is sure to be a fun and powerful-for-its-price MR tool. But it in no way compares to the HoloLens as an MR solution any more than a go-kart and an F1 race car are similar just because they both have four wheels and a steering wheel. (That is not to denigrate the go-kart; if your blood is red, you know that go-karts are awesome. But they’re not as awesome as an F1 car.)
The HoloLens is an engineering triumph, employing a unique projection system and a third type of processor (a proprietary one at that, developed internally by Microsoft) that enables jaw-dropping experiences on an untethered device that runs on essentially a mobile-class CPU. The ZapBox uses a smartphone, some clever software, a cheap HMD, and paper markers to simulate mixed reality. F1 versus go-kart.
The ZapBox is also limited in that it does require markers, which means any space in which you enjoy mixed reality is going to literally be dotted with pieces of paper. Further, it all runs through Zappar’s proprietary app; even though the app is compatible with most smartphones, you have to open it to experience the mixed reality.
It also currently supports only ZapWorks, instead of more powerful tools like Unity and Unreal, although it is not technically limited in this way. Depending on how things shake out with adoption, it’s possible that you could build just about anything with any tool and run it through ZapBox, so long as that experience uses the markers. Zappar also told Tom’s Hardware that “We are exploring the possibility of extending ZapWorks to support exporting content for other MR or VR hardware such as HoloLens.”
Just as it’s foolish to overstate what the ZapBox can do, it would be shortsighted to dismiss it as a toy. It is to mixed reality what Google Cardboard was to virtual reality, and both have the same goal in mind: to democratize XR.
ZapBox is not an end, it’s a beginning. Zappar would be the first to say as much. “The idea is to open up the creation of mixed reality content to anyone, rather than just those that can afford a $3,000 HoloLens Development Edition,” a Zappar representative told Tom’s Hardware. “We’ve realized we can do this using only passive physical components combined with existing smartphones.”
So, then, think of ZapWorks as just that: It’s a remarkably inexpensive way to enjoy, play with, learn about, and develop for mixed reality.
Some of the Kickstarter pledge levels will get you a ZapBox and accessories by March 2017; others are slated for April 2017.