Jeri Ellsworth Is Bringing Affordable Augmented Reality to the World

A conversation with CastAR's co-founder on games, Augmented Reality, and affordable tech.

Feb 23 2017, 9:00pm

This story appeared in the February issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe. 

Portrait by Vivian Fu.

It seems that around every corner is a company insisting that the future of interactive technology lies in virtual reality, but others aren't as quick to cut ties with the physical world. Eschewing VR's helmets and headsets for a blended approach, augmented reality (AR) is the domain of creators and innovators like Jeri Ellsworth, co-founder of technology startup castAR. The firm is working on an affordable AR-glasses solution that will project images on top of what you can see in the real world.

An AR interface can do something like project a map of an existing space, and add all manner of interactive elements, as Pokémon Go did earlier this year. Or it could project characters onto a real-life game board and have them contend with obstacles, real-life weather, etc. That's only the beginning: AR typically uses projection of some kind, so anything that can be simulated, or animated, can conceivably be brought into the "real" world.

While AR solutions like Microsoft's HoloLens promise exciting sci-fi visuals—like 3D interfaces that engineers or modelers can use to design objects—it's also pricey. CastAR is instead looking to make AR a technology that anyone can use and anyone creative enough can design applications for. That accessibility is key.

A former developer at Valve—responsible for the VIVE VR system, the Steam Platform,
and various games, including the Portal and Left 4 Dead series—Ellsworth knows the ins and outs of constructing new worlds and using existing spaces to make new ones. We chatted with her about her plan to bring AR to the masses, and why it's so much more exciting to build on top of—instead of supplanting—the world we live in.

VICE: Do you see AR as a more accessible technology, fundamentally, than VR?

Jeri Ellsworth: I've always believed that augmented reality will not only be a more accessible technology but will also have a bigger impact in our lives. VR is, by definition, an isolating experience that shuts you off from the rest of the world. AR, by definition, augments that world around you and is social and inviting. VR requires expensive hardware and processing. We're targeting a mass-market price point for the castAR solution.

"VR and AR get lumped together as variations of each other, they really have nothing in common."

VR requires you to set up your living room a certain way and move furniture out of the
way. AR will be with you wherever you go. So, although VR and AR get lumped together as variations of each other, they really have nothing in common with each other beyond the fact
that each requires eyewear. 

How do you design around—or incorporate— real-world problems or obstacles with AR?

Creating a new AR platform is tough, and there are a ton of super smart people here helping
us crack some tough problems. We've all seen promotional videos from some AR companies  that promise "AR everywhere" out in real-life spaces.

Frankly we're not sure what to make of those, but our guess is this is more concept than reality. I want to bring AR to market in stages, and our approach is to use the tabletop as a first step. We can create some very compelling experiences by using a forced constraint of limiting the application to the tabletop. We'll learn a lot from these first experiences and broaden out from there.

What is your biggest blue-sky dream for five or ten years from now? What are your thoughts on how AR will meld with other technologies or even design paradigms in the future?

My blue-sky vision for AR in the home blends a number of technologies that are being introduced and gaining adoption as we speak. Think of your smartphone. It's a phone, a camera, a device to access the internet, your newspaper, gives you the weather, watch a movie, etc.

In the not-too-distant future, AR and phones will merge, and you'll also combine voice recognition with your AR device. So, when you come home, you can just say, "Increase room temp. to 68 degrees," and the voice recognition in your phone will be controlling your smart home. You may put your glasses on at a store to see advertisers' messages or specials come to life. Or you may choose to shop from home via a 3D holographic image of the items you're interested in buying.

Workers in factories will use AR glasses to provide guidance on how to assemble products. At this point, the computing power required to realize the AR-anywhere vision is something that will be addressed.