‘Instant 3d’: Start-up invents plug-and-play VR computer

GemSense’s virtual reality chip could turn virtual and augmented reality games into the Next Big Thing – for real this time

Playing with a Gemsense-controlled device (Courtesy)
Playing with a Gemsense-controlled device (Courtesy)

A video driving game is nice, but even when fully engaged in the experience, players realize that it’s just a game. For a true all-encompassing experience, you need a true virtual environment.

But that’s only achievable with complicated augmented and virtual reality programming techniques, and expensive AR or VR glasses – making the dream of developing a killer AR/VR app out of reach for most developers.

Unless developers utilize the “instant AR/VR” system invented by Israeli start-up GemSense.

“It’s a tiny computer, developed by us, as the first plug and play controller device for AR and VR,” said Jonathan Schipper, a co-founder of the company. “With our system on a chip (SoC), developers can turn any ordinary item into a 3D experience that fully engages all the senses.”

AR and VR have been touted for the past half decade as “the next big thing,” even before IoT (Internet of Things) became the new “next big thing” a couple of years ago. Unlike IoT, which can now claim a slew of Internet-connected items already on the market — such as front doors, refrigerators, cars and washing machines — AR/VR has remained behind, more of a novelty than a game-changer, except at the higher-end of the gaming business.

The Oculus Rift (which is still under development, as it has been since 2012) and similar products, expected to cost around $500, will allow gamers with deep pockets to enjoy games on their TV-connected gaming systems, like Xbox One (which, if they don’t already have one, will cost gamers another $500).

Connecting to everyday objects

But Schipper has a different idea in mind for his AR/VR system. “Our idea is to create a small computer that will have pre-built routines for AR/VR that can connect with everyday objects. Using our software development kit, developers will be able to turn those objects into AR/VR experiences. We can do motions like throwing balls, driving using a simple steering wheel, or embedded in a ring. It’s small enough to be embedded in a wide variety of objects, fashion accessories, and more,” said Schipper.

One good example of how the system works is a game developed by GemSense called Cave Driver 3D – a driving app that requires players to drive a virtual car through a cave and avoid hitting large boulders in the way. Using a Samsung Gear VR that connects to a plain, plastic steering wheel – which has a GemSense SoC embedded in it – the app running on the Bluetooth-connected chip provides a thrilling virtual driving experience, as players try to get around the rocks that pop up out of nowhere, all in a completely enclosed 3D virtual reality setting.

Jonathan Schipper (Courtesy)
Jonathan Schipper (Courtesy)

Although Cave Driver was displayed with the $200 Samsung system, it also supports Google Cardboard, the company’s much cheaper VR system (do-it-yourself Cardboard kits can be had for as little as five bucks). While it’s too early to price the full GemSense system (both for developers and for integrated toys and objects), it’s likely to be a lot cheaper than anything Oculus produces, said Schipper.

“We’re working with several companies, including Samsung and Google, as well as with manufacturers, to develop objects that will support our system, so developers can build a game using our SDK and plug our SoC into an object they can ‘convert’ for AR/VR experiences.”

Cave Driver was a huge hit at the recent DLD Innovation Conference in Tel Aviv, where Schipper showed it off to hundreds of people – even blowing away DLD chairman Yossi Vardi, the “godfather” of Israeli high-tech who has seen hundreds of start-ups come and go, Schipper added.

Not just for gaming

But games are just one part of where Schipper wants to take GemSense. “We could use this for physiotherapy, providing an immersive experience to help improve physical actions for those with impediments. We are also trying this out in the workplace, allowing managers to learn more about how workers do their jobs in order to help make work procedures smoother.”

Schipper recently held a hackathon where developers used the SoC and the SDK to develop cool uses for the system. Among the top projects: an app to control a drone using a glove with the SoC embedded; using a GemSense-powered ring to send a distress signal or request to a caretaker for people with disabilities; and a virtual ‘sevivon’ (Hannukah spinning top) contest for two players, among others.

Mostly self-funded, GemSense recently got a grant from the Chief Scientist’s Office in the Economy Ministry, and is working on its next version – a stronger, smaller, and longer-lasting SoC (currently, the chip can operate for 4-6 hours with its Bluetooth connection constantly transmitting). That new version will be ready in the coming months, and Schipper expects it to make a big splash among the many developers who have looked on in envy at cool AR/VR applications – but were unable to develop them.

“Creation of physical products, especially wearables, can be hard,” said Schipper. “With tight constraints of size and usability and considerable skill and resources needed to build your own hardware and integrating it with your service or app. Our chip enables you to take that next step, build your product or app and test early. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel or struggle with unknown forces.”

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