If you ask Apple, the next big thing in computing is augmented reality, or AR — the technology for overlaying digital imagery on the real world. Indeed, when the iPhone 8 launches on September 12th, expect AR to be a big focus.
The eventual goal, as promised by Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and startups like Magic Leap, is a pair of smart glasses that combine the digital and physical world. From there, why would you need a smartphone? After all, your text messages, Instagram feed, and Netflix would just pop up in your field of vision.
Well, we’re not there yet. The first version of Google Glass was a famous fiasco; Microsoft’s HoloLens is on the market, but it costs a cool $US1,500 and is clearly meant for businesses and the earliest of the early adopters.
But if you need a sign that this is where things are headed, look to a galaxy far, far away.
On Thursday, Disney and Lenovo unveiled “Star Wars: Jedi Challenges,” a $US199 augmented reality headset that lets you lightsaber battle with Darth Vader and lead Resistance troops into combat. And while it’s far from perfect, it’s a sure sign that the augmented reality revolution is way closer to reality than people might think.
Here’s a trailer showing off what “Jedi Challenges” is all about:
I got some hands-on time with “Jedi Challenges” at a Disney event earlier in August. And to make a long story short, I think a lot of people are going to want this headset. Pre-orders for “Jedi Challenges” begin on Friday at Best Buy and Lenovo’s online store, for delivery some time later this year.
A more elegant weapon
First, and most importantly, “Jedi Challenges” is a lot of fun.
In my demo, I swung the lightsaber controller to fight off Kylo Ren, the villain of the upcoming “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” The headset does a pretty reasonable job of making you think he’s in the room with you, given the early stages of the technology. When you hold the lightsaber in your field of vision, it extends out a digital blade. The game is launching with 6 villains that you can fight, including Darth Maul.
Other modes include a strategy game where you act as the field general to the forces of the Resistance as they combat the villainous First Order. I didn’t get to try it, but the concept of literally ordering virtual X-Wing fighters around my living room to attack is irresistible.
Finally, “Jedi Challenges” will feature “Holochess,” the holographic chess game played by Chewbacca and C-3PO in 1977’s “Star Wars: A New Hope.” That’s a pretty exciting inclusion for the discerning “Star Wars” fan.
There are some limitations: The motion-tracking for the lightsaber sometimes failed, even in my short demo, with that virtual blade jutting off at an awkward 90-degree angle. I was able to reset it, and it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment. More worryingly, there’s no multiplayer of any kind, at least in its current form.
With that said, “Jedi Challenges” represents a notable technical achievement.
Got it where it counts
Like Samsung’s Gear VR, or Google’s low-cost Cardboard virtual reality gear, the “Jedi Challenges” headset requires you to slot in your own smartphone to provide the computing muscle. And it comes with a bright purple “beacon” that you need to put on the floor in front of you, giving the system a point of reference for when it projects images.
Otherwise, it’s self-contained. You put on the headset, and pick up the (very hefty, very solid-feeling) lightsaber controller, and you are a Jedi, like your father before you.
It should be noted, right off the bat, that “Jedi Challenges” pulls off some impressive technical feats. For example, the Microsoft HoloLens has a very limited field-of-view — meaning that the digital imagery is only visible in a small section of your vision.
“Jedi Challenges,” by contrast, has a much wider field-of-view, encompassing most of the area in front of you. And this headset uses what’s called “inside-out positional tracking,” an inside-baseball term for a headset that doesn’t require an exterior camera to track the movements of your head.
There are some trade-offs, however. To achieve that wider field-of-view using a smartphone’s limited processing power, the resolution is fairly low, meaning things get blurry if you stare too close. And if there are plans to add more content later, Disney and Lenovo are staying mum for now, meaning it’s pretty limited, all told.
And yet, the fact that there’s going to be a consumer AR headset, for $US199, that works, and works pretty well, before the end of 2017, is kind of crazy. I would never have thought it would get this close, so soon. But I guess nobody told Disney and Lenovo the odds.
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