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Ready, aim, fire lasers!

by Travis Haagen
May 17th, 2012

Slightly less than a year ago, I purchased a pico projector. These little guys can still be spendy, but at the time I was taking advantage of a sudden price drop, while not exactly knowing what I would do with it. It was impulsive, but I was intrigued with the idea of projecting information onto surfaces, which I imagined could be something akin to Virtual Reality, without the glasses.

As I plugged the pico projector into my iPod Touch for the first time, I was filled with excitement and anticipation at what hidden powers I would be unlocking. The disappointing reality was that iOS contained almost no out-of-the-box support for external screens, aside from a painfully weak photo slide-show capability. Netflix, however, came to the rescue with good support for projecting shows on walls or on the ceiling of my bedroom. This really does work, but one thing you'll notice right away is that if your projector isn't perpendicular to the wall, you get a skewed image, which makes sense. I went back to watching Netflix on my TV.

Every couple months I would dust off the pico and recharge it, but it was breaking my heart to allow such magnificent technology to rot. The beauty of a pico projector isn't just that it's extremely portable, but that it doesn't require any focusing. Just being able to point it at a surface and instantly get a clear, crisp image was previously unheard of. It was amazing! It was stupendous! I yearned to know it in its full glory, but alas, it still lay unused; a piece of techno-junk.

I'm a software developer and a (bone headedly stubborn) entrepreneur. Some e-book annotation software that I spent way too much time on was not doing so well, so four months ago I decided to just bite the bullet and make an iOS game. I once heard in a film, the name of which I can't recall, that, “when you're poor, you buy art,” (a bit of an oxymoron) and I think that it probably means the same thing as, “when nobody uses your e-book software, you make a game.” Perhaps not, but I've been putting off making games with the naïve idea that I would “get around to it,” after I made it big in commercial software. I could always go back to the e-book software later, but I decided to jump on board the mobile game bandwagon instead. This proverbial bandwagon, however, is on fire and flying off a cliff.

It took three months to finish Foot Quest, but to say that it wasn't a commercial success would be an understatement. This mobile game stuff wasn't as easy as it looked, but I had accomplished a lifelong goal to get this far, and I started to think about my next move. Why not tackle another dream?

Ever since I first heard of the idea of linking together mobile devices and miniature projectors, I felt that there was a huge, or at least a very nerdy, opportunity. The camera of a mobile device could be pointed toward the projected surface, and the computer inside the device would “see” and understand what real life actions were taking place between the camera and the projection. This all sounded incredibly cool, but incredibly difficult. As I was revisiting the idea, it dawned on me, “what if you could point a laser-pen at the wall, and track it?” A quick Internet search showed that I wasn't the first person to think of using a computer to track a laser-dot on a wall, but nobody seemed to be applying it in quite the same way as I had imagined. After some research and experiments, I had a working prototype.

My proof-of-concept, and first Laser VR game tests your skills in a virtual shooting range. To play, you need four items: an iOS device, a compatible pico projector, a laser pen, and a mobile tripod. Since the projector will output a landscape image, it's important to use a table-top tripod that is able to hold the mobile device in landscape orientation, keeping the projected image fully in-frame. For iPhone and iPod Touch, I highly recommend the excellent iStabilizer Flex™, which is easy to adjust and well crafted. The pico projector will sit underneath or in front of the tripod, to keep the camera in proper alignment.

Once you have setup your hardware, the Laser VR game will automatically calibrate the mobile device's camera to the bounds of the projected image. This process makes it possible for the game to accurately correlate the position of the laser dot to the position of on-screen buttons and targets. As the game runs, the computer inside your mobile device simultaneously processes each frame from the video stream in real-time, as it renders the game to the connected projector. A laser dot, on the projected screen is analogous to your finger on a touch screen. It's incredible.

At the time of this writing, the game is nearing completion (UPDATE: available now!), but unlike past projects, I decided to release a preview in advance. The reason is that I want to hear from you. Are you a pico projector refugee, like myself? Does this project fill you with hope of a brighter future for your little pico friend? Does this just look incredibly cool, from the demo video? Do you have some news about related technology efforts? Please email me directly at travis@LaserVR.com.

Thank you and welcome to the Laser VR blog. Ready, aim, fire lasers!

App Store link: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/laser-vr-alpha-range-pico/id531874849?ls=1&mt=8

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