These days marker-based augmented reality is pretty much a mature technology. It’s something every smartphone with a camera and a middling spec sheet can do. As we move to advanced markerless, machine vision AR and MR systems no one is really expecting for the old approach to get any innovation.
Which is why the release of the MergeVR Cube is mildly surprising. So what exactly is this cube?
Gleaming the Cube
The cube is made from soft foam and is covered in patterns that look like something from an ancient aliens documentary on the History Channel. Of course, the real reason the cube is covered in these arcane symbols is so that each face of it is completely unique and the AR software can smoothly track it no matter which way it’s turned.
This makes the Cube a general-purpose AR object that Merge can attach any 3D data to. Merge are marketing the cube as a toy sold with access to a bunch of pre-baked AR experiences that all work with this one trigger object.
Whether merge knows this or not, of their Cube becomes popular it basically acts as an AR platform. If developers know that people own a Cube, they can write their own software to take advantage of this. Presumably with a licensing agreement from Merge. In practice of course, you can make your own AR software work with the Cube without much effort, since you only have to map its surfaces into your own AR ecosystem.
Cheap as Chips
Given that this is basically just a printed foam cube, it may be surprising to know that the asking price is $15, but of course this includes whatever markup Walmart (the retailer) has put on the product. Also, we’re not just paying for the cube itself, but for the research and development time and effort that’s gone into it.
There’s an app for both Android and Apple and you don’t need a specific brand of HMD to use it, although surely Merge would prefer you use their own mobile HMD product.
In terms of the software there hasn’t been a whole lot of information, but the tech demos are pretty cool. There are quite a few games that involve manipulating the Cube somehow. So there are physics-based games and ones where you use manipulation of the cube to control something in the game. One of these, where you control a space fighter by turning the cube, actually looks to be a VR game.
Since this product is aimed at a younger audience (at least for now) there are also a bunch of educational demos too. An animated and labeled human skill or a little homunculus that shows you the different organs.
None of this is completely new, we’ve seen stuff like this from companies like Daqri before, but this low-cost, user friendly approach may just turn out to be a stroke of genius.