This was supposed to be the year of virtual reality. It kinda was, but it mostly wasn’t, if you judge by how much it actually penetrated the mainstream.
VR still has plenty of obstacles to overcome, one of them being that it’s difficult to get a decent VR experience on the world’s most popular smartphone, the iPhone. Most viewers aren’t much better than Google Cardboard, and no matter how good they are, using them for augmented reality, where the viewer uses the iPhone’s camera to give you a mixed-reality experience, is pretty much garbage.
Here’s where Occipital saw a big opportunity. The startup created its Structure Sensor iPad accessory specifically to take detailed, real-time scans of a room. It occurred to the creators that if they built the sensor into a VR headset, that headset would have room-scale VR powers along the lines of the HTC Vive, where virtual objects are not only mixed with the real world, but can also interact with the viewer and the environment on the fly.
Enter the Bridge. At first glance, it looks like one of the many no-name VR headsets you can get on Amazon: it’s white with black straps, with a door in front that fits an iPhone 6 or 6S (there’s an iPhone 7 version too which is slightly different to accommodate the new camera). Then you see the oblong sensor array protruding from the front. That, of course, is the Structure Sensor, which powers the augmented-reality experience. I got a chance to try out the Bridge at Mashable’s offices, and it was definitely the best AR/VR headset demo I’ve ever seen on an iPhone.
Using a demo app powered by Occipital’s “Bridge Engine” software, the Bridge starts by scanning the environment you’re in. Once that’s done, the room appears on your screen, just as it would in reality, except the iPhone only shows the parts of the room you’ve scanned. The unscanned parts (mostly what’s behind you) are left as a gray void. It’s a little weird, and I’d favor keeping unscanned parts “live” on the screen (that is, taking the view directly from the camera), but I get why they’re not there.
Occipital has created a robot character, named Bridget that can interact with you and the room. Tell Bridget to fetch a virtual object and she’ll go get it, avoiding real-world furniture along the way. You can tell her to seek out a power outlet for recharging (she doesn’t really recharge, of course), and she’ll get sad if physical objects get in her way.
Most of the interaction is done via a wireless controller that’s sort of like a mini Wiimote. Tap a button and you’ll see a green dot that’s essentially a mouse cursor. You can use that to “click” on Bridget or part of the environment.
One of the more thrilling things to do with the Bridge is go full virtual. If you click on Bridget, she’ll display a menu of five 3D objects, and if you pick the one that looks like a person escaping, a huge virtual doorway will open in front of you. Step through it and you’ll suddenly be in a fully virtual environment; the one I was in looked like a futuristic observation deck.
As with the Vive, the headset will pause the VR or AR world to show you a ghostly frame of the real world environment if it gets confused. Unlike the Vive, that seems to happen fairly often. This is a 1.0 experience, so there are definitely bugs to work out. But there are also limits to what a mobile device can do compared to a PC-driven headset or dedicated AR hardware like Microsoft HoloLens.
The Bridge is impressive, however Occipital isn’t aiming to just sell a few headsets, but rather to launch the headset as a platform. It’s compatible with current VR/AR apps, of course. Yet developers can also build experiences with the Bridge’s unique brand of spatial awareness and potentially open up games or game-like apps where you can perform tasks with objects, something usually reserved for high-end VR experiences.
The Bridge Explorer Edition, meant for developers, is shipping in December for $499, while the consumer version arrives in March 2017 for $399. Both come with the controller, though the first Explorer versions will have it shipped separately.
With the Bridge, Occipital wants to use its sensor tech to catapult into a leadership position in VR, at least as far as the iPhone is concerned. It’s a smart, if riskily ambitious strategy. With Samsung and Google dominating the conversation on Android and Oculus and HTC locking up the high end, that leaves the iPhone as the last major frontier for VR to conquer. Since Apple has been silent on the matter, it’s essentially a free-for-all. And Occipital’s Bridge looks like a strong contender to be the defining VR experience for iPhone.