Valve were making augmented reality glasses; ex-employees carrying project forward as CastAR


Back in February Valve let go as many as 25 of their staff, notably hardware engineer Jeri Ellsworth and Linux programmer Rick Johnson. The pair were developing a pair of augmented reality glasses, a project quite unlike Google Glass and the Oculus Rift.

Since leaving the company they’ve taken the technology with them and plan on releasing it independently, with Valve’s blessing.

The CastAR glasses are fitted with a pair of projectors, one above each eye, and two infrared sensitive lenses. The projectors cast on image onto a special retroreflective screen and, working in tandem, create a 3D image that you perceive through the infrared lenses.

Particularly impressive is that more than one person can be projecting images onto the same screen and the images don’t become confused – you can all play a personal 3D game at the same time while looking at the same screen space.

Clearly the glasses on show at Maker Faire aren’t a commercial build, they’re simply a pair of specs with all the chips and tech roughly soldered to the frame. No, Ellsworth and Johnson will be funding the development of the final build through Kickstarter this summer.

Speaking to The Verge, Ellsworth wouldn’t reveal the reason for her being fired by Valve. There’s the suggestion that when Valve chose to adopt the Oculus Rift they ended development into AR.

However, Valve allowed Ellsworth and Johnson to leave the company with the technology and no legal obligations, handing ownership over to the engineers. Ellsworth said “Gabe was completely behind it… I talked to Gabe, and he talked to the lawyers, and he’s like, ‘It’s theirs, make it happen,’ because he could see we were passionate about it.”

We may also have our answer to what the hell Valve’s economist Yanis Varoufakis was on about back in March. He described a pair of lenses which allowed him to see a full 3D 8-foot alien creature walking about the room. There are some differences between the technology Varoufakis describes and CastAR. Varoufakis talks of AR/VR contact lenses, not glasses – but the experience is very similar. Could it be he was playing it up a little?

CastAR is a strange but amazing concept. Personal 3D projection conjures up images of the holodeck, games which have you immersed in worlds that come out of the walls around you, or, on a smaller scale, rise out of the table in front of you. It is dependent on extra kit – the glasses, a screen, a wand (which can be used to interact with the projections), and a computer to run the game. Compared to Google Glass which simply lays flat images over the world in front of you or the Oculus Rift which contains all the kit within its headset, CastAR might seem overly convoluted option.

However, it’s very early stages for all three of the technologies. Seeing how they develop in the next few years is going to be utterly fascinating.