E3 2015 featured many companies, both large and small, demoing some sort of virtual reality or augmented reality product. This is of course thanks to Oculus Rift, which is the company that reignited the whole VR movement in gaming a few years back with its initial debut and successful Kickstarter campaign. Now big dogs like Sony and MS have thrown their respective VR/AR hats into the ring, but that doesn’t mean many of the smaller companies that have sprung up should be overlooked just because they don’t have a billion dollar corporation backing them.
One such company is Franklin Lyons’ Merge VR, which is a mobile virtual and augmented reality solution for iOS and Android devices. Unlike the Oculus team, Franklin’s Merge VR is self-funded, as well as from investors, and it’s made to be mobile, which is evident by its marshmallow-like purple foam design that fits comfortably on your head, even with a smartphone jammed into its front slit. What’s even better about the Merge VR is that it won’t be that expensive, especially when you consider all that it can do for just $129.99.
This device is both a virtual reality headset, as well as an augmented reality headset, which is pretty unique and offers up all sorts of creative uses for it. The Merge VR also comes with a very lightweight and easy to use controller, which can snap snuggly onto the headset for storage, or for games and apps that want to incorporate its built-in motion controls more directly to the headset experience. The virtual reality glasses inside the foam casing can be positioned with two little nobs, which makes for a tailored viewing experience that can really amplify the virtual and augmented worlds this device can create through the various apps and games being developed for it. The combination of its foam build, and the ability to toggle the VR lenses definitely made the Merge VR feel more comfortable and a bit more natural than the Oculus Rift, which feels much more expensive, but also much heavier and less forgiving on the eyes.
I played a variety of newly created games, which can all be launched from the Merge VR companion app that runs on iOS and Android, and provides a similar UI to the tiled Xbox One interface, albeit with much less clutter, and absolutely no ads. Monster Defense is a stationary shooter/brawler where you are positioned on a pad in a graveyard and must fight off waves of incoming monsters using the controller as a wand gun, or as an actual blunt melee weapon by swinging it violently as if you were actually trying to batter something to death in real life. Head and eye tracking were very impressive, and while the game was a bit rudimentary it still offered a solid look at what the Merge VR could do with virtual reality running on a smartphone.
Faceted Flight on the other hand was an endless flyer or sorts, so rather than you being the character with no movements in the game world, you take a third person view of a jet and must use the controller like a Wii controller to navigate the jet around obstacles in an attempt to set new distance travelled records. Even though you’re not the jet, the virtual aspect of this title thanks to the Merge VR still manages to suck you into the game world and make you feel like you are living in it.
As previously mentioned the Merge VR also supports augmented reality through a removable cover on the front of it that allows your device’s camera to poke through, which is then fed to your eyeballs in the headset. A piece of paper transformed in front of my eyes into a triceratops when I tested this functionality out, and its level of visual clarity was amazing. The holographic image even managed to stay in focus as I picked the piece of paper up and moved my head around, which was tracked to keep the illusion in view.
There was also a paper cube with random images on it that turned into a glass box with a running horse in it thanks to the Merge VR’s augmented reality capabilities. I could hold the cube in my hands and spin it around freely and the image would always stay in view. This particular demo led me to believe that the Merge VR could most definitely be used for other mediums outside of gaming, such as education, social networking, or in your day to day life.
Microsoft’s Hololens definitely blew me away when I used it for a Halo 5 Warzone demo, but in all honesty the Merge VR also managed to excite me for its multi-functional uses, price, and mobility. The foam material can be squished up and tucked away into a book bag for easy portability, so it’s not like you have to worry about damaging a super expensive piece of hardware while using it on the go. The price is right at $129, and if enough developers and app makers take interest in the platform, the sky will be the limit in terms of the games and applications that can be dreamed up for it. What’s even better is that all of the software will be available in the familiar App and Google Play stores, so it’s not like early adopters will have to deal with some sort of half-ass distribution platform built specifically for this device.
The Merge VR should ship this fall, so stay tuned for more updates on it as they become available. We will definitely try and work with Franklin and his team for a review unit, because this particular VR/AR mobile solution managed to make a strong impression on us at E3 2015.
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