AR is still in its infancy, and while progress has been made putting it into the hands of regular people (thanks to the likes of Apple's AR Kit), it still feels pretty far out of reach. Especially since one of Microsoft's HoloLens development kits is £2,719. But then we got a surprise at IFA, when Lenovo announced a new Star Wars gizmo - the Mirage AR headset.
I tried the Mirage (and the Jedi Challenges app) while I was in Berlin, and found that it was alright. The experience was a bit rushed and I found it was a bit tricky to get the hang of it during such a small window. And the display was a bit dim, so I couldn't see quite as well as I would have liked. I left IFA thinking that it was alright and had some potential, but it had some problems.
But! I've had the chance to test one properly, at home here in the UK, and my attitude is completely different. It still has its problems, but my feeling is that this could be the boost AR needed. It might not be enough to thrust affordable AR headsets into the mainstream, but it should get it into the hands of a lot more people.
As you might have figured out from the headline, it feels like the Mirage is the AR equivalent of Samsung and Oculus's Gear VR. Like the Gear VR it's smartphone powered, and is quite a bit cheaper than its fully-fledged brother (£250). The Mirage is basically just a case that enables the holograms to appear in front of your eyes. The Jedi Challenges software is a smartphone app (downloadable from iTunes and Google Play) that's displayed on a section of your phone's display. That display is then bounced through some mirrors to create the hologram that's laid over the real word.
I'll admit I hadn't realised it was smartphone powered before I got it, because I obviously hadn't been paying attention. That got me thinking, could this mirror other AR apps into the display?
There's nothing stopping images from your phone being displayed on the Mirage, which you will find out if someone decides to send you a text while you're playing. Because it's not a translucent hologram, however, it blocks your vision and detracts from AR's biggest advantage: the fact that you can see virtual objects and still see what's happening in the real world. There's also the issue of the fact the Mirage doesn't use the entire display, which prevents you from using it to, say, watch a film in VR.
But if you were to develop an AR app from scratch, taking into account the smaller display area and the whole hologram thing, there's nothing to stop you from sliding your phone in and using the headset as a display. The only real problem there is that you wouldn't be able to take full advantage of the hardware inside the Mirage headset.
The Mirage comes packed with two front-facing cameras, which it uses for tracking the light-up AR accessories that come bundled with it (the Lightsaber and aptly-named tracking beacon). It seems similar to the PSVR and Playstation Move, in that the cameras use the light as reference points for any movement you make or any swings you might take with the lightsaber itself.
All of that is possible because the headset and phone are physically connected, so the headset is able to relay what it sees directly to the phone. It means that if anyone were to create an AR app that could be used with the Mirage, they'd have to go through Lenovo to take full advantage of the hardware. Without the more sophisticated tracking the camera system offers, the tech doesn't quite as exciting. You'd just have a static hologram in front of you, and while some might be intrigued by that it's not the kind of thing you'd want from a £250 headset.
Phone goes here
I can't see why Lenovo would be opposed to a development kit that lets people create apps specifically for the Mirage, but I didn't receive a response when I asked a one of its reps whether this was likely to happen. Personally I think it would be in the company's best interests, because as fun as the Jedi Challenges game is it's not got enough content to justify paying £250 to play it. A PS4 or Xbox One S costs less than that, and they both have huge catalogues of games to play.
But despite that shortcoming the Mirage has potential, and it's a lot more appealing than the other AR headset on the market (Hololens). It's not quite as comfortable to wear, and you can occasionally see stray reflections of image in the corners of the display, but the difference is staggering. For one thing the field of view on Hololens is pathetically small, whereas the Mirage utilises almost the entire display. It's not quite what you'd expect from your eyes (because there's a headset in the way), but it's still more or less on par with your average VR headset.
I found that Hololens's holograms weren't quite as bright and easy to see either, but that might just be down to the individual settings and lighting.
I can't quite say the same about the comfort, seeing as how the foam cushioning on the top of the headset is a few inches further closer than the two at the bottom. That essentially means that the headset tends to be tilted down, and that annoys me immensely. It might be my dumb head, but it would be nice to have some way of altering it for a better fit. Hololens was easier to put on too, since it had an headband with a dial for adjusting the fit, much like the PSVR. The Mirage has ordinary elastic and Velcro, which meant it had a tendency to want to slip off if I moved around too much.
Such steam, very fog, many irritate
The headset also has a tendency to fog up, particularly with how cold I seem to be keeping my flat (heating costs money, and I'm not exactly Jeff Bezos). It's a problem I've universally had with VR headsets, but with the Mirage it makes it so much harder to use. For one there are more panes of glass/clear plastic for condensation to cling to, and the some of them take an age to clear up - even if you try and speed the process along. The outer layer also covers the cameras, so if that steams up I found that the tracking wasn't as accurate as it could be. That made fighting Darth Vader 100x harder.
But difficulty de-fogging aside, those criticisms are most arbitrary and in no way unique to the Mirage. I've had those issues with other headsets in the past, and it seems to be more a case the low price coming at the expense of some of the design features.
The Mirage isn't perfect, and the content is a little bit limited, but I'd say that it has potential to be a lot more than it is. It just relies on Lenovo being able to see that, and letting people develop software for it. At the very least it shows that it's not impossible to have a good AR headset, and more specifically a good AR headset that people can actually afford to buy. The Hololens is pricey, due to the fact it's still a development kit rather than a consumer product. The Mirage is not, and that's a very good thing for AR and AR enthusiasts.