Augmented reality, as opposed to virtual reality, is based on enhancing the world around us, and is developing beyond the visual sphere. At IFA 2018, we tried the Merge Cube, which puts augmented reality at your fingertips, and suggests exciting possibilities for future technology involving AR you can actually feel and manipulate.
While the big hardware manufacturers hog up prime real estate at IFA, many intriguing technologies can be found under the radar. My top contender for IFA's best cube was not Huawei's AI cube, which fails to resemble the titular polyhedron. More worthy of the name is the Merge Cube which, although it looks like a cheap sci-fi prop and feels like a baby's building block, contains a multiverse of hidden depths and hints at the exciting potential of AR you can touch.
Most AR apps superimpose digital graphics over what the smartphone camera can capture in front of it. Interaction is limited to looking merely through your phone. But this $15 cube offers digital illusions that you can move and manipulate with your fingers, not just by pointing-and-clicking or tapping on the screen, but by old school manipulation.
AR needs to be seen to be believed, so check out our demo in the video below:
Simply point your phone at the cube and fire up a compatible app, and the Merge Cube will be transformed. You can hold planets in your hands, creatures, body parts, or even a complex environment such as a castle with ramparts, bridges and waterways. Discrete objects displayed by the cube can have their own physics, and can move, shake and bounce depending on your hand movements. Most impressively, Merge tracks distance with no perceptible delay.
Discovery and fun in the palm of your hands
This pick-up-and-play is instinctive and satisfying, so it's no surprise that Merge is targeting children and education with attractive and informative content for children. For example, the cube can transform into a miniature solar system or model of the human body, with handy information points you can discover as you rotate, angle, and zoom around the hologram in your hands.
But the delight of holding these magical images in your hand isn't limited to children. Although I was primed to dismiss this thing as a simple toy, after trying some more complex apps, even a cynical older millennial like myself became quickly hooked.
I particularly enjoyed Tiltball, a simple physics game where you have to roll a ball around a 3D environment without dropping it into 'water'. The manual dexterity and quick reaction required really impressed me with just how responsive and detailed the AR tech is. But among the various apps I tested playing around with this cube I discovered virtual pets, strategy games, Minecraft-style constructions, global weather tracking and more.
Merge offers their developers kit for 3rd parties to create content for the Merge Cube, so we'll be seeing more and more creative ideas as time goes on. For a more immersive experience, Merge also supplies cheap headsets (strap-in your smartphone, a la GearVR, Daydream and Cardboard) so all ten of your fingers can get in on the action. If you'd like to get your hands on the Merge Cube, you can order one from the company's website. But the potential of AR you touch isn't limited to this little thing.
AR of the future shouldn't neglect our sense of touch
When actually using the cube, it's amazing just what a difference being able to move the AR images with your hand makes, even if you're used to interacting with virtual objects with controllers, as is the case in high-end VR gaming. A cube is a simple shape so options are limited to turning it around and moving it closer/farther, but that was enough to get me excited to see similar tactile AR experiences.
Merge already has another product in the works in the form of their '6DoF Blaster' a weapon designed for immersive AR and VR shooting and action games. Though the blaster was on display at CES earlier this year, sadly there was no sign of it at IFA. Weapons aside, physical AR tools could be used to move virtual objects around a tabletop for gaming or exhibition purposes, create detailed 3D scale models of anything or virtually design handheld products with a preview of how they'll look in the real world.
This cube may be an intriguing little toy, but the experience left me with a lasting impression: our fingers and sense of touch are naturally part of how we as humans explore reality, and should be part of augmented reality too.
What do you think of AR? Are you excited to be able to manipulate virtual objects in your hands?