Back in 2011, Sony had showcased a series of spectacular videos transforming the humble living room into a digital canvas brought to life with augmented reality. The mind-bending visual imagery showcased in the videos was achieved by projecting moving images onto every surface in the room using strategically placed projectors. Earlier this month, Microsoft showcased a similar augmented reality (AR) take on gaming at CES 2013, where regular Xbox games leapt from the confines of the TV set and onto the surrounding walls.
Dubbed as IllumiRoom, this Microsoft Research project leverages the Kinect motion sensor to make the system hassle-free enough to be considered feasible for deployment at the consumer end. Make no mistake; this hasn't in any way been hinted as an upcoming product. Microsoft has termed it a proof of concept at the moment. Although it may look almost dubiously similar to PlayStation's aforementioned AR room-projection videos, it would be wise to hold your horses before making a beeline for the comments section to flame Microsoft for ripping off Sony.
More iterative than innovative
What these companies have showcased isn't exactly groundbreaking proprietary technology. If that were the case, we would have heard of a lawsuit or two by now. In reality, the Xbox maker has merely put forth a concept co-opting a lesser-known commercial technology to your living room. Prior to being given a fancy name, this technique was known as 3D projection mapping. In fact, this expensive version of smoke and mirrors has been extensively used for outdoor marketing campaigns, where entire buildings and large outdoor structures are brought to life thanks to some clever projection wizardry.
Despite being more iterative than innovative, you still can't take any credit away from Microsoft. The fundamental difference between IllumiRoom and similar indoor prototypes or outdoor advertising solutions is that the former seems to be a lot more sophisticated, adaptable and simplified means to enjoy 3D projection mapping in your living room. This is largely due to the Kinect sensor's ability to spatially analyse a room in true 3D, which allows it to feed the projector with requisite data to create a convincing AR illusion.
While earlier implementations have ranged from advertising applications to gimmicky videos, Microsoft's endeavour to integrate the concept with Xbox and Kinect should make it viable enough to justify mass production and deployment, if it ever chooses to proceed with full-scale deployment. This is especially true because regular 3D projection mapping solutions are unsuitable for your average tech consumer, as the setup requires skill and technical knowhow beyond the ken of a layman. However, the inclusion of Kinect should, by extension of its ability to see and analyse your room, render the system consumer friendly by taking complexity and tedium out of the equation.
The inclusion of Kinect takes the tedium and difficulty out of making the setup work as intended
An expensive and cumbersome concept
Consumer friendliness however doesn't always translate into commercial success. For all intents and purposes, this is a gimmick—a very impressive one at that, but a gimmick nonetheless. When you scratch past the veneer, it's evident that the IllumiRoom concept remains a glorified means to pump up the eye candy quotient. Once the initial shock and awe fades away though, it becomes apparent that this isn't meant to be the groundbreaking change in the way we consume movies and video games that it's touted to be. It is, after all, an optional extra—a potentially expensive one at that, if it were ever to see the light of the day.
There are one or two major factors that stand to inhibit the concept from garnering wide acceptance from the masses. First and foremost is the high projected cost and dependence on projectors—a display source that generally hasn't been popular by itself in the consumer segment. The sheer amount of prerequisites and restrictions entailed by the inclusion of projectors in the living room alone should put off your average consumer.
It's a difficult balance to attain. Use projectors with energy-efficient LED lamps, and darkening the room becomes a necessity, which is too impractical to be expected from something that's nestled bang in the middle of the living room. Switching to brighter traditional projector lamps, however, leads to impracticalities such as extended warm up times and significantly high energy consumption.
This may look enticing, but it won't be very practical
Another major factor that could potentially make wider acceptance difficult, is the very ingredient that makes it possible to bring the 3D projection mapping technology to the living room—the Kinect motion sensor. Let's not forget the fact that not only does this concept reduce its target demographic to those who own the Xbox 360, but an even fewer number of Xbox owners have embraced the motion sensor, which is sold as an expensive optional add on.
While rumours about the integration of Kinect hardware into the upcoming Xbox 360 successor have been flying thick and fast, that just might make matters worse. Although that may bring costs down, let's not forget the fact that a console is generally placed in the same plane as the TV set. The Kinect, which is now integrated with the Xbox 360, therefore will no longer be able to analyse the TV side of the room for the IllumiRoom concept to work.
A tall order
The high cost and hardware exclusivity isn't the only hurdle though. Absolutely any console ecosystem invariably pivots on the cooperation of content creators. For this entertainment revolution to succeed, both video game developers and movie studios must deliver content that leverages the IllumiRoom technology.
Getting video game developers accustomed to a whole new API and deliver new content won't be easy
This is a tall order, especially for films, because doing so will require the studios to invest heavily in separate masters for movie prints. When you factor in the Blu-ray standard's dominance on the high-end home entertainment spectrum and Microsoft's arch nemesis Sony's stranglehold on the format, it's evident that the going will not be remotely easy in that regard.
Video games, similarly, will require the developers to learn, adopt and become familiar with the requisite APIs to integrate the IllumiRoom system. Drumming up developer interest for a concept as niche as this will be a tough sell for Microsoft. Just think about it—how many third-party mainstream video games you know have meaningfully leveraged Kinect's motion controls in the core gameplay?
At the very heart of it, the IllumiRoom is a rather expensive and cumbersome approach to the holodeck concept. It isn't even the only stab at bringing Star Trek's vision of augmented reality to fruition. VR Headsets such as Oculus Rift, for example, are relatively cheaper, hassle-free and more elegant means of achieving the same. The reason why these attempts at recreating everyone's favourite sci-fi fantasy haven't succeeded is simply down to the lack of willingness on the part of content creators to give the consumers enough of a reason to embrace these systems.
At the end of the day, no matter how much Microsoft refines the IllumiRoom concept, it simply will not succeed unless it can corral its pool of video game developers to create content for the system. Films will be an even greater hurdle for the aforementioned reasons. To be brutally honest, making the concept succeed seems to be a tall order even for Microsoft.