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CastAR looks to turn augmented dreams into reality

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Developers sought for holograph-style system

CastAR is at DICE looking to drum up some development support for the holograph-style system that was first developed at Valve.

Spun off from Valve in 2013 by Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson, the project is now backed by finance group Playground to the tune of $15 million, with further rounds of financing likely. CastAR players don a light pair of glasses that project 3D images onto a table-top board. The player uses a wand-like controller to play games.

Although CastAR has come a long way since we first saw it back in 2013, there still looks to be a great deal of work remaining. This is a system that badly needs games.

Latest Demos

During a play-session here at DICE, Johnson showed me the system working with four demos. The first displayed two Jenga towers. My wand became a light-saber. By swishing the light-saber, I destroyed the Jenga towers. Johnson directed me to look closely at the Jenga blocks and, indeed, I could make out fairly detailed wooden patterns in them, as I came closer. Still, it's a pretty rudimentary demo.

This was followed by a Star Wars chess-style game. I was able to point the wand and move the creatures, but there are no actual chess mechanics built in yet.

A Marble Madness-style demo is notable because of the 3D layers of the ramps and obstacles, as you control your ball. Part of the game is also about the player physically moving around, so that your perspective changes. This game is simple fun, enhanced by the feeling of a three-dimensional board.

The last game is an isometric military-shooter of familiar style. This is the sort of game that was popular 30 years ago, now lightly enhanced by three-dimensionality.

Durable Specs

It's clear that much of the team's work has gone into perfecting the underlying technology and making sure the glasses are durable and light enough to pass muster as consumer products. The glasses feel sturdy and the tech works fine. I can move about the game-scape, and feel like the apparition is real.

Unlike in VR, the glasses allow for normal vision (I took notes during the demo, and forgot that I was still wearing the glasses).

CastAR wants to release its box of tricks some time in 2017, with a mass-market price tag that is "lower than a console," according to CEO David Henkel-Wallace. He points out that CastAR works out of the box and does not need a PC or a console.

"It's a new kind of experience."

Henkel-Wallace's pitch is about how CastAR is all about family fun and bringing the classic board game experience into the 21st Century. There's no doubt that this has a feel of something that might be opened and enjoyed on Christmas Day, but does it have the lasting appeal that gets it beyond mere novelty? Or will it end up in the cupboard under the stairs, gathering dust?

"We're specifically taking steps to prevent that," says Henkel-Wallace, adding that the kit will ship with a small selection of games, as well as a curated store where "two dozen or more" will be available at or around launch. "We're talking to developers now," he adds. "It's a new kind of experience."

Developer Attractions

CastAR looks impressive enough to tickle the fancy of developers who enjoy a new challenge. The demos being shared at DICE suggest that there are opportunities here to create something genuinely new and interesting. Some of that $15 million warchest is going to be used to bring developers on board, with CastAR working as publisher.

Consumers are likely to be most animated by games that make use of the board's ability to create three-dimensional height, rather than the fairly low-lying nature of the demos shown so far. In order to succeed, this experience needs to bring the player a meaty visual fields that pops off the flat table surface.

"We have this rich graphical storytelling experience."

Multiplayer games are a possibility, although there are practical limitations. For two people to play at the same time, they both need the glasses, which is the expensive part of the kit. This is not like buying an extra controller for a console.

But leaving that obstacle aside for a moment the potential for fun multiplayer dynamics is real. Each player is presented with their own version of the world on the board.

"Dungeons & Dragons is something I've been playing longer than I've been making video games," says Johnson. "Now if you're playing a dwarf, you can see the dungeon in infravision. From my human perspective, I'd only see the low light. We're both limited by the fog of war. And the DM can see the entire world. We're all together playing D&D socially like we always have, but now we have this rich graphical storytelling experience with ambient sounds."

At DICE and in the year ahead, CastAR is looking to find a way to turn these concepts from alluring potential into reality. Developers will be the ones who make a difference.