The strength of virtual reality is its ability to transport you to somewhere else. It is the ultimate escapism. But some argue that not everyone wants to escape the doldrums of their life, and actually, the larger market lies in augmented reality. That’s what Merge VR is betting on. The company has produced the first ‘handheld holographic toy’, the Merge Cube, which works with mobile devices and VR headsets to place new worlds in the palm of your hand.
The Merge Cube is open to all developers
Franklin Lyons, Merge VR
“We started working on the Merge Cube back in 2014,” says Merge VR founder Franklin Lyons. “It was part of the original vision of the Merge product. The concept developed to be handheld – this is where the potential of the product became realised. This idea that one simple cube could literally become anything you could imagine, in the palm of your hand. We took natural human interaction and made it digital. That’s a fundamentally new human experience.”
A fundamentally new human experience is quite a lofty goal, but the potential is there with the Merge Cube. Especially since the company is viewing the toy as a new platform on which developers can create new experiences. So, in effect, those new human experiences are in your hands.
"The Merge Cube is open to all developers," says Lyons. "There are hundreds of developers already working (and playing) with it now. We also have our $1M AR/VR Developer Fund which helps developers bring their creative visions to fruition. I come from the indie world so I want to make sure we can support that community of geniuses.” Lyons believes that the concept of ‘play’ has been left behind in modern game development, but that this can all change with AR and VR. “The pendulum is about to swing the other way,” Lyons says. “Traditional play has been sort of abandoned in favour of pure digital experiences like apps or video games.
It's ironic, but this advancement in AR/VR technology gets us back to the physical world. The key is to take what is inherently fun about the physical activity, and use the digital layer to enhance it – never distract from traditional play.
“Tangibility is key. Our brains are hardwired for this. With Merge Cube, we are using a basic form factor to connect things on a human level. If you do it right, it’s incredibly powerful. We’ve worked really hard to nail the technology and the form factor so that it’s simple and just works. Designing and manufacturing an object that could do this well was a challenge.”
There are greater opportunities here than just gaming, too. The Merge Cube, while undeniably a ‘toy’, has a lot of educational potential both at home and in the classroom. Giving people something tangible to hold improves learning. Examples used were anatomical diagrams – holding an annotated human heart or skull in your hand, and being able to look at it from different angles, will always be more compelling than a two- dimensional picture in a textbook.
“I named the company Merge because of the grand vision of merging the physical and the digital,” says Lyons. “It makes me giddy to think about how the technology is going to unfold in phases. Each one offering more and more capabilities and integration. From a development standpoint, it’s the biggest creative opportunity of our time. AR will be like one of the four elements; it will exist everywhere. So pick a market you are into, build something for it, and you’ll be alright.
“VR and AR is not for everyone... yet. But give it time, and it will make the human experience all the more wonderful.”