You want Magic Cheap? Support ZapBox for budget-AR!

Great gag! Darn, sorry, it wasn´t mine. I took it from the new ZappAR kickstarter pledge on their plans to bring budget AR to the masses! Well-known, London-based AR company ZappAR runs a campaign to get funding for their new projects titled “ZapBox”. Read about it today to learn how you could achieve a complete AR experience for just 30 bucks!

Cardboard and paper-controllers

If ZapBox gets its funding (sure seems so) we will be able to use their cardboard-style AR experience as the most simple form of a head-mounted-display AR experience. While you know AR from ZappAR on your phone already – it´s always the typical smartphone-AR – a window to the AR world, hands blocked by holding the phone between you and the subject of (augmented) interest.

Now with ZapBox they want to go a step further – and this dirt cheap! They plan to bring us not only a cardboard to put your phone in, but also to give us two paper hand controllers (like a paper version of HTC Vive one´s). To make it happen they decided to you use a wide-field-of-fiew lens (a clip-on onto your smartphone camera) and fiducial markers (like in good old ARToolkit) they tagged “point codes”. With this they want to allow a fully mixed-reality room-scale setup:

ZapBox combines physical components with advanced software to provide magical Mixed Reality experiences. Insert your smartphone into the ZapBox headset, start the ZapBox app, and step into a whole new world of interactive content.

The ZapBox app displays the live feed from your smartphone’s camera so you can see what’s around you in the room. The magic part is that it can also display virtual objects that appear anchored to the real world, so you can change your viewpoint by simply moving around.

The video below shows their idea in a short clip:

What do we get?

Well, as listed as a supporter you would get a cardboard, the lens clip, the paper controllers and the circular markers. The software package for the supports will include the seen demos from Painting, Mini-Golf, a dancing the mini-game, xylophone play and the Mars exploration.

Developers have full access to the system to develop their own apps. The ZappWorks Studio will support ZapBox nicely and they also have a JavaScript-based API for ease of use. The whole package is supposed to be shipping to early backers in March 2017 and April for the non-beta backers.

So, is it worth at all investing in cardboard quality?

ZappAR definitely did a good job with their kickstarter pledge answering all questions and presenting the idea nicely. 30 Dollar also sure sounds promosing! But does the whole concept make sense at all?

On a feature-to-money ratio it sure does. They also list this on their page, ending up with the result that ZapBox must be as good as the Hololens (comparing the “checked” features) – only drawback you need a cardboard-ready phone in addition to the 30 bucks. This can still be way cheaper than any commercial Hololens device in 2017. So, why would I want to get a Hololens then??

Obviously their ad and listing is quite biased and there was nothing yet said about the quality of the experience. For starters, internal sensors, camera, CPU… of a regular Android phone on the street (unless it has Daydream-ready specs) will just not reach a highly sophisticated Hololens or other thousands-of-dollar-devices.

Second, the whole thing is a video-see-through system with a mono camera. How can you get a stereoscopic impression (for both augmented content and real world capture) with a mono lens? They do explain in their FAQ that they did some magic tricks to bend the video feed into two versions that work stereoscopically. This sure is possible, but I´m a bit afraid of the quality.

Third, why use old school markers again? Didn´t we get past them years ago? Do I really have to put paper points all over my place again? Well, check back again on the title of the post. We want it dirt cheap! I can understand ZappAR that they opted for this way. The today´s phone sensors just don´t have depth sensors in it (waiting for Tango!) and doing a full SLAM tracking might steal too much performance, especially if you need to combine it with the tracking of the hand-controllers (which just wouldn´t work). Markers might be ugly, but are just the damn cheapest thing to do!

Sure, this setup has high potential of making you motion-sick, let augmented objects jitter around or get cumbersome interaction with the controllers. Also I´m no fan of video-see-through AR, never was. The missing (real) stereo could also get on your nerves. But hey! That said, what I like about their idea is that they – as they say themselves – want to democratize HMD-based AR with it! Everybody can play! It sure is the cheapest start to do fully interactive hand-controller-supported, room-scale MR (you can also switch to full VR mode!). Every student or young professional without a budget could try this out to make first prototypes of AR until devices get cheaper.

I just hope for them that they don´t become outdated before they ship the packages… Tango is around the corner and obviously everybody could snap a Tango-phone into their cardboard next year getting probably way better results. Maybe then hand interaction will even work – without the need for paper controllers. Also room-scale could then do its job well without paper markers on the walls… So, if they are quick, it might work as an interim solution. But I sure hope, they build the SDK / API with these updates in mind, so that their platform can easily support Tango and others next year! ZapBox definitely is a fun project to follow.

So, check out their kickstarter page, where they go into more details and support them if you think this system is for you!