Liviu Berechet Antoni had launched his Altergaze Kickstarter campaign a few days before anybody expected to utter the words ‘Oculus’ and ‘Facebook’ in a single breath.
And then it happened, and the world responded. Facebook had acquired Oculus; a sure sign of a ‘sell out’, some insisted. Others waggled the finger of blame and Palmer Luckey and his colleagues, furious about investing in a second dev kit. To them a darling of the indie scene had gone to the dark side. Or the light blue side. Others thirsted for a replacement; a new VR underdog with bold plans.
Which brings us to Altergaze.
Ostensibly a VR headset, Altergaze is rather different. It has no electronic parts, is 3D printed, has distinct crowd-manufacturing distribution planned, is remarkably cheap, and isn’t even a headset in the strictest sense.
Rather, it’s held to the face to dip in and out of VR, be that through a game, exhibition, tourist attraction, architect’s office, or any of the other places Berechet Antoni sees his creation thriving. And it comes with all the Unity scripts needed for adding support to games, with UDK versions to follow, all to make developer support for the platform as simple as possible.
But before getting to specifics, it’s best to look back. Aged just 15, Berechet Antoni was living in his native Romania, already working on 3D graphics for news TV and the Eurovision Song Contest’s local broadcast. Subsequent years saw him take on presenting work in television, and undertake at least some of an architecture degree.
“But I wanted more. I wanted to create ideas and share stories,” Berechet Antoni tells Develop. “So I moved to the UK to study, and started another degree, related to film-making and animation. Getting a direct entry in to second year meant I had to specialise, and I thought ‘fuck it; I don’t really know anything about games’. So I thought I’d better study games.”
After years of study in the UK, and work on both games and television graphics, the day came when Berechet Antoni picked up an Oculus.
“I started to think about Altergaze almost the moment I tried Oculus for the first time,” he explains. “I thought about how I could do it differently, and it wasn’t long until I started to invest in what I needed. First an iPhone 5, as the screen allows for a wider field of view, and then a 3D printer.”
After a few weeks of toil, Altergaze as it stands today essentially came to exist. The plan is that the standard model can be bought by the end user as parts, assembled or just as lenses and bolts; the rest provided as a 3D printing file. Those files are open source, free to share for non-commercial purposes, and designed to allow private 3D printer owners the world over to manufacture and distribute, tailoring their output’s cost and quality to match local markets.
The Altergaze team have also built a devoted online shop, meaning consumers and manufacturers can customise each pair, be it for aesthetic or functional purposes.
“Choosing to go with 3D printing was a business plan at first. I realised that with no electronic parts, all I really needed was to provide frames and lenses. It was after that I started to think about all the other benefits 3D printing brings. I mean; this could even become so affordable somebody hosting an event could give out Altergaze to those attending the event.”
It’s a bold idea, but utterly feasible. Indeed, if Altergaze is a vast success, unit cost could fall dramatically. Kickstarter backers can spend around £75 on a printed pair, but that cost is not just a preorder. Most of the money will go to establishing Altergaze as a business. In reality mass production could bring the price down to far lower numbers; perhaps £10-to-£30. But there’s also the other direction to consider, with pairs becoming more ornate, high quality and lavishly customised, raising the cost as much as people are willing to pay.
Any 3D printing-based business model, of course, has to consider the future of piracy of physical objects. Its something giving Berechet Antoni much reason for thought, but he’s also confident that through making production files open source, customisation and the provision of lenses – currently something far from the abilities of 3D printing – the way Altergaze will be shared can be controlled by the VR community over the pirates.
But there’s also competition already; the Duroviz Dive smartphone VR system uses a similar concept, and is already available to the public. Clearly, Altergaze’ has a fight ahead of it.
As for Altergaze’s basic function, a set has six lenses; three for each eye; with the option to remove a pair of lenses to suit use cases and users, zooming in on the screen image. A phone provides the technical hardware, and can be quickly slotted into the front of the Altergaze. From there it’s a matter of developers making use of those Unity and UDK scripts to adapt or create games so they display with the ‘left-eye/right-eye’ images common to most VR systems. In reality, it’s one of the simplest VR systems out there.
And, perhaps ironically, while Altergaze has arguably stepped into Oculus’ position as the plucky underdog, Berechet Antoni’s vision for his device as a games platform isn’t diametrically opposed to the gaming commonly associated with Facebook.
“When I started to introduce people to the idea of Altergaze, I told people to imagine casual VR games,” says Berechet Antoni. “Those people ignored me. And then Facebook bought Oculus, and everybody started to change their minds.”
Berechet Antoni’s idea is for games like a ‘VR Temple Run’, but he hasn’t set his boundaries at games. From offering a visual extension to the Silent Disco concept to an opportunity for architects wanting to easily allow virtual tours of yet constructed buildings, Altergaze’s uses are many.
Develop’s hands on time with Altergaze confirmed that the hardware certainly works; a tech demo took the form of an automated raft ride through urban canals, realised in stereoscopic 3D. While the tech demo featured a possible delay in movement so slight it was most commonly hard to tell if such lag was a reality or a trick of the mind, Altergaze delivers results that appear utterly up to the standards needed by developers. Not bad for an early stage model crafted by a team of one.
On the matter of function, Berechet Antoni also sees that Altergaze may allow games makers interesting opportunities around second screen and companion apps. And while for now any games made for Altergaze are generally expected to use smartphones’ own accelerometers, there’s an in-development controller app that could be used with a second device, such as a tablet.
For now, Berechet Antoni’s main concern is success on Kickstarter. Failure there won’t end his plans for Altergaze, but knock them back some way. His concern is, his take on the VR headset is just a little too out there.
“There’s a rule about innovation,” he states. “You are only supposed to innovate on 20 per cent of your project. 80 per cent is supposed to remain familiar if you want to be successful. I may have got that a little wrong. I may have gone a little too far with new ideas. But it’s hard to stop.”
An open-source 3D printed electronics-free customisable crowd manufactured VR headset that isn’t a headset certainly brings some new ideas to the table. But fortunately for Berechet Antoni, like modern games development, iteration has become a powerful tool.
“With 3D printing Altergaze will always be a prototype. It is now, and it always will be.”
And so it is that he must return to his 3D printer. Right now Berechet Antoni is working on the best way to design and print the flexible rubber eyecup pieces. There’s much to do, but to the fledgling tech-polymath, there’s clearly little he would rather do.