While Apple prepares to roll single-point augmented reality to the entirety of iOS this Fall, and Google prepares to release several phones with spatially aware camera arrays onboard for whole-building augmented reality, Merge Labs wants to show you a $15 block of foam you can play with. It looks like something you'd see as a prop in a sci-fi TV show from the 90s with no budget, but when you point you phone at it what happens on the screen is nothing short of amazing.
It's called Merge Cube, and you're really going to want one of these if you care at all about Augmented Reality.
"Holograms" for everyone to enjoy
Were you to stumble across a Merge Cube in a store, seeing the phrase "a Hologram you can hold in your hand" plastered on the side may not appropriately explain what it is this little block actually does. It's a good way to get the attention of someone who has no idea what VR or AR actually are or how they are different though, and it doesn't take long to figure out what you've purchased once you remove it from the simple packaging.
There really is very little to the hardware here. It's a foam block with six highly stylized QR Code-like patterns, each one very different from the others. You put a Merge app on your phone, point it at this block, and in between the camera seeing the cube and the display showing you the cube, an animated layer is drawn over this simple cube. It could be as simple as a campfire, or as complex as a fighter jet that travels through the air as you move the cube around. When you rotate the cube in your hand, the animations move with you.
This is the simplest form of augmented reality, but it has been highly polished so you aren't just pointing the camera at a flat QR code to see an animation. The whole cube is interactive, and you can either tap on the screen or on the VR headset your phone is in to interact even further with whatever your Merge Cube has turned into.
Software done right
Rather than being limited to Android or iPhone, Merge Cube uses the Qualcomm Vuforia augmented reality kit to make the software experiences available to everyone. That means quality AR is $15 away no matter what kind of phone you have, which is pretty cool. As for available apps, Merge has been working hard to ensure dozens of unique apps and games are available for everyone. This is expected to grow quickly, thanks for the Merge AR|VR Developer Fund putting a million dollars into developer support for new experiences.
For our early demo, we didn't have access to any of the apps that will be available on launch day. What we had instead was the Merge Demo app called Th!ngs, which allowed us to access a handful of brief experiences to move around and enjoy. Merge did have a couple of highlights for apps to expect at launch, and they all look quite promising.
Each Merge App includes two features that will make exploring and sharing a great deal of fun — recording what you see on the display and VR mode. If you want to share what you are seeing, hit the record button on the app and you'll have a short video to share with friends which includes the augmented reality layer. If you'd rather have a more immersive experience, you can drop your phone into a VR headset and use both hands to enjoy the Merge Cube. The only limitation here is needing to make sure the VR headset isn't covering up the camera, or has a handy removable section for your camera like the Merge VR Googles.
The best part of this whole experience is the way it all worked so smoothly. On each phone we tested this app on, the Cube was detected immediately and the animations were crisp and deeply entertaining. In the event that you're trying to play with your Merge Cube in low light and the augmented reality layer struggles, there's an in-app button for turning on the flash on your phone to better light the Cube, which works really well.
Go get one of these. I promise it's worth it.
There's still a lot more exploring to do with this cube and its related apps, but even the early demo apps we've been able to play with so far more than justify the incredibly reasonable $15 price tag on this accessory. It's great for sharing with kids, so much fun for wowing friends that don't do much in AR or VR, and it's clear Merge has a long-term plan for this Cube to keep delivering entertainment.
This is a win no matter who you are, and it's not hard to imagine these being hard to get your hands on due to popularity. Be sure to drop us a line in the Forums if you're able to get your hands on one!