Using a virtual-reality headset is just one way of looking at an animated digital world. A new startup called Pantomime has come up with another method — without the need to wear goggles.
The new technology is very innovative, and it’s one more offering that could help fulfill the promise of virtual reality and augmented reality, which are expected to become a $150 billion market by 2020, according to tech advisor Digi-Capital.
Pantomime has created a new twist on the virtual world with a new app it is unveiling today dubbed Pantomime Playground. It lets you use a Mac computer or an iOS device as a kind of window into the VR space. The first game to debut on top of Pantomime Playground is Pantomime Bug Farm, which lets you use your iPad to maneuver around a table with bugs on it. You can use the iPad to view the bugs from different angles and even squish them with it.
“We call it virtual worlds for the rest of us,” said David Levitt, cofounder of Pantomime and one of the pioneers of virtual reality. “You can reach into a virtual world using the tablets, screens, and computers we already have.”
Pantomime’s software detects the way you are holding a tablet and figures out which point of view you should see through the tablet’s screen. If you turn the tablet in one direction, you’ll see a different view.
The tech makes use of motion-sensing hardware on the devices. You can cradle, grip, or swing the device in your hand, and you’ll see your own motion have an effect in the virtual world. You can, for instance, push your tablet flat on the table to squish ants, praying mantises, spiders, or scorpions in the Pantomime Bug Farm game. You can grab a tablet screen from any edge of the tablet and swing it back and forth. The platform can sense the presence of the swinging tablet like a motion-sensing Wii controller.
“It works pretty well as a mobile virtual-reality platform without the goggles,” Levitt said. “It’s like an on-ramp for virtual reality.”
Levitt studied artificial intelligence at MIT under A.I. innovator Marvin Minsky. In addition to his work with Minsky, Levitt also spent time at VPL Research, one of the first VR companies, which Jaron Lanier founded in 1984. That first go-round for virtual reality failed, but Levitt reawakened to the possibilities after Oculus VR started grabbing the limelight with a revival of the medium. He started his company before Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion.
In most virtual-reality and augmented-reality systems, you must wear goggles with a stereoscopic display over your eyes, so you can immerse yourself in a virtual world. But Pantomime’s technology turns this inside out. Ordinary tablets, smartphones, and computers become the portal into a VR space, as if their screens are made of glass. Your device is a part of the virtual scene, and you can use it as a paddle, swinging it back and forth. You can use a Mac screen with your iPad to view your tablet’s position in the virtual world so long as both devices are on the same Wi-Fi network.
Levitt formed his new Sebastopol, California-based company in 2014 with Don Hopkins, who formerly worked on The Sims. Eric Hedman, another game creator who worked on The Sims expansion packs, subsequently joined them. Advisors include Arthur van Hoff of cinematic-virtual-reality leader Jaunt and video game visionary Nolan Bushnell. Pantomime has filed for patents — and has been awarded one — on its technology, and it is working with game and entertainment companies to build apps on top of it.
The possibilities are tantalizing. Levitt showed a video of how you can have three Macs and an iPad interacting with each other in the same virtual world. I used it in person, and it was a pretty magical experience. I was swinging an iPad back and forth, using it to squish bugs on the table. As I turned the iPad and pointed it in different directions, I could see different parts of the 3D scene.
“You start to get a sense of how every device is imported into a common space where they can move around and see each other,” Levitt said. “You can think of it as augmented reality that works with a single mobile device and scales to room size and to as many displays as you have available.”
The software, now available in the App Store and Mac App Store as Pantomime Bug Farm, lets people reach in and play with virtual creatures — evading, shoving, and squashing them. You can fling the bugs across the table, toss realistic objects like ping-pong balls at them, feed them, and grow them to enormous size. Multiple devices can access and share the 3D scene in Bug Farm. Players of any age can interact with Bug Farm, even four-year-olds and five-year-olds, Levitt said.
Bug Farm is just one scene that will be available in Pantomime Playground. Eventually, individuals will be able to create their own original scenes. The app is free at the moment.
Levitt said that Pantomime resolves some key problems with VR. It can reduce the cost because people can use devices they already have. They can also use it on the run and network with other players. Plus, they avoid the potential isolation or nausea that goggles can cause. It’s not a “nerds only” solution, Levitt said.
Update 4:35 p.m. Pacific: GamesBeat added that Pantomine has already been awarded one patent.