The Merge Blaster turns the world around you into a video game
Merge Labs is on a mission to bring both VR and AR to kids, and big kids, everywhere with its Merge VR headset and AR Merge Cube. As VR applications for big kids grow thanks to the adoption of Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, there are fewer interactive augmented experiences out there for kids.
Merge is set to change that with the announcement of its 6DoF AR Blaster at this year’s CES. Having gone hands-on with the device myself shortly after the show, it’s clear to see that AR doesn’t have to be a gimmick as this glasses-free gaming experience is truly impressive and immersive – and all you need is a smartphone.
Designed in Merge Labs’ San Antonio headquarters, the “6DoF Blaster” prototype is a Nerf-like plastic toy gun with a housing for your smartphone to sit and run the full AR experience. Using an iPhone X in the position where the guns iron sights would sit, the blaster maps out the space around you and creates an arena to take on virtual foes in the environment around you.
Utilising Apple’s ARKit platform, the game running on the iPhone understands six-degrees of movement, and once the tech melts away, it feels like absolute magic.
The gun itself is relatively straightforward in how it works. There’s a battery built in to light up an LED bulb at its muzzle to represent gunfire, but the phone does all the heavy lifting. There are four buttons on the device: a trigger, a reload button, a zoom and a special button that – in this demo – used stored energy to activate a bullet-time effect.
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What makes the 6DoF Blaster so interesting as a toy prototype is just how fantastically it all works. I’ve been calling it an AR experience, but it doesn’t really augment your reality. The app itself is a window into a virtual world, the sort of world you’d experience in a VR headset – except you’re viewing it through the sights of a gun. Merge describe it as VR without a headset, and it’s hard to argue otherwise.
Surprisingly, everything feels rather natural when playing. Despite your portal to the virtual world being located where the guns iron sights would be, you find yourself holding the gun up towards your face anyway. Due to the six-degrees of freedom you’re given via the gun’s app, you’ll be peeking from behind virtual walls and taking pot shots over boxes. You’re never running around with the gun by your side, instead, you’re always running around with a breach-and-clear mentality.
Of all the features here, it’s the blaster’s six-degrees of freedom capabilities that really make it feel special though. VR headsets allow you to move up and down, side to side and forwards and backwards through virtual space. Somehow, just by using a phone camera, the Merge Blaster can do the exact same thing in physical space. This suddenly means you’re no longer playing around in an on-rails shooter, you’re moving and ducking around your living room or your local park.
Merge is opening up its development kit so others can create apps and games for the blaster, and it plans to release manufacturing specs too so others can create Blaster-compatible products. In the future, Merge has ideas to bring in true multiplayer games via the Blaster, allowing for laser tag-like games to be played among groups of friends.
There’s currently no price attached to the 6DoF Blaster but, as past Merge Labs products have come in at an affordable price point, don’t expect it to break the bank. As with all Merge Labs toys, they’re designed to be family-friendly, with its soft Merge Cube and Merge VR headset priced at £13 and £50 respectively.
This isn’t the first AR toy to come to market and cause a storm. Last year Lenovo teamed up with Disney to bring a Star Wars-themed lightsaber duel AR device to market. In my review, I absolutely loved it – although was concerned about its price in relation to its content. With the 6DoF Blaster set to slip out sometime later this year, it’s looking like 2018 could be the year AR entertainment goes mainstream.