MergeVR – a bit of HoloLens but now

If you are getting excited and interested, or just puzzling what is going on with the Microsoft announcement about Hololens and can’t wait the months/years before it comes to market then there are some other options, very real, very now.
Just before christmas I was very kindly sent a prototype of new headset unit that uses an existing smartphone as its screen. It is called MergeVR. The first one like this we saw was the almost satirical take on Oculus Rift that Google took with Google Cardboard. A fold up box that let you strap your android to your face.

MergeVR is made of very soft, comfortable spongy material. Inside are two spherical lenses that can be slid in and out lateral to adjust the divergence of you eyes and get a comfortable feel.
Rather like the AntVR I wrote about last time, this uses the principle of one screen, split into two views. The MergeVR uses you smart phone as the screen and it slides comfortably into the spongey material at the front.
Using an existing device has its obvious advantages. The smartphones already have direction sensors in them, and screens designed to be looked at close up.
MergeVR is not just about 3d experience of Virtual Reality (One where the entire view is computer generated). It is, by its very name Merge, about augmented reality. In this case it is an augmented reality taking your direct view of the world and adding data and visuals to it. This is knows as a magic lens. You look through the magic lens, and see things you would not normally be able to see. As opposed to a magic mirror which you look at a fixed TV screen to see the effects of a camera merging with the real world.

The iPhone (in my case) camera has a slot to see through on the in the MergeVR. This makes it very difference from some of the other Phone On Face (POF – made up acronym) devices. The extra free device I got with the AntVR, the TAW is one of these non pass through POF’s. It is a holder, and lenses with a folding mechanism to adjusts to hold the phone in place. With no pass through it is just to watch 3d content.

Okay so the MergeVR is able to let you use the camera, see the world, and then you can watch the screen close up without holding anything The lenses make you left eye look at the right half and the right eye at the left half. One of the demo applications is instantly effective and has a wow factor. Using a marker based approach a dinosaur is rendered in 3d on the marker. Marker based AR is not new, neither is iPhone AR, but the stereoscopic hands free approach where the rest of the world is effectively blinkered for you adds an an extra level of confusion for the brain. Normally if you hold a phone up to a picture marker, the code will spot the marker, the orientation of the marker and relative position in the view then render the 3d model on top. So if you, or the marker moves the model is moved too. When holding the iPhone up you can of course still see around it, rather like holding up a magnifying glass (magic lens remember). When you POF though your only view of the actual world is the camera view of the phone. So when you see something added and you move your body around it is there in your view. It is only the slight lag and the fact the screen is clearly not the same resolution or same lighting as the real world that causes you to not believe it totally.
The recently previewed microsoft Hololens and the yet to be seen Google funded Magic Leap are a next step removing the screen. They let you see the real world, albeit through some panes of glass, and then use project tricks near to the eye, probably very similar to peppers ghost, to adjust what you see and how it is shaded, coloured etc. based on a deep sensing of the room and environment. It is markerless room aware blended reality. Using the physical and the digital.

Back to the MergeVR. It also comes with a bluetooth controller for the phone. A small hand held device to let you talk to the phone. Obviously the touch screen when in POF mode means you can’t press any buttons 🙂 Many AR apps and examples like the DinoAR simply use your head movements and the sensors in the phone to determine what is going on. Other things though will need some form of user input. As the phone can see, it can see hands, but not having a Leap motion controller or a kinect to sense the body some simpler mechanism can be employed.
However, this is where MergeVR gets much more exciting and useful for any of us techies and metaverse people. The labs are not just thinking about the POF container but the content too. A Unity3d package is being worked on. This provides camera prefabs (Rather like the Oculus Rift one) that splits the Unity3D view into a Stereo Camera when running into the right shape and size, perspective etc for the MergeVR view. It provides extra access to the bluetooth controller inputs too.
This means you can quickly build MergeVR 3d environments and deploy to the iPhone (or Droid). Combine this with some of the AR toolkits and you can make lots of very interesting applications, or simply just add 3d modes to existing ones you have. With the new unity3d 4.6 user interfaces things will be even easier to have headsup displays.
So within about 2 minutes of starting Unity I had a 3d view up on iPhone on MergeVR using Unity remote. The only problem I had was using the usb cable for quick unity remote debugging as the left hand access hole was a little too high. There is a side access on the right but the camera need to be facing that way. Of course being nice soft material I can just make my own hole in it for now. It is a prototype after all.
It’s very impressive, very accessible and very now (which is important to us early adopters).
Lets get blending!

(Note the phone is not in the headset as I needed to take the selfie 🙂

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