Hands on: Dicing droids with Lenovo's Star Wars augmented reality headset
Virtual reality's lesser-known (but no less impressive) cousin, augmented reality (AR), has been slow to leak into the consumer tech space, but few franchises can kick adoption into overdrive like Star Wars can. Lenovo is about to launch Star Wars: Jedi Challenges, an AR system centered on three minigames from that galaxy far, far away, and New Atlas went hands-on with the device at PAX Australia this weekend.
Rather than the all-encompassing visuals of VR, augmented reality superimposes virtual objects and characters over the top of the real world. Microsoft's HoloLens is the star of the show for now, allowing users to watch videos on the walls, pin virtual calendars to the fridge or play Minecraft on their coffee tables, but there's still no word on when it'll be available. And although it arguably wasn't true AR, the crazy success of Pokémon Go last year demonstrated that the technology has the potential to really take off.
Lenovo's Mirage AR headset is powered by a smartphone, like Samsung's Gear VR. In this case it works with both Android and iOS, meaning users can slide the latest Galaxy, iPhone or Pixel into the frame, and images from the screen are projected onto a clear plate in front of your eyes, making them appear in the "real" world. While you'll definitely look pretty goofy wearing it (as the above image highlights), the headset is one of the more comfortable ones we've worn.
The Mirage headset sports a pair of motion-tracking cameras that keep watch for two markers. First there's a tracking beacon you place on the floor, which tells the system where the ground is and allows the projected characters to find their footing. And of course there's your controller, which looks like the handle of a lightsaber with a glowing nub of a blade on the end.
When you look at the thing in your hand through the AR goggles, a beam of light emerges from the tip with that all-too-familiar hum. It really feels like you're wielding one of the most iconic weapons in movie history, and it's almost entertaining enough just to swing it around and watch it follow your every move. The next step – turn that lightsaber onto some deserving droids.
The game mode we played pitted us against wave after wave of those skinny battle droids from the prequel movies. As they approach, you swing the lightsaber to protect yourself from their laser fire, and if you time it right you can bounce their own shots right back at them. When they get close enough, it's time to start hacking away, swinging the blade to slice them limb from limb.
Deflecting shots and carving up droids was intuitive and plenty of fun. At times the beam looked like it was lagging behind our movements or bending off at weird angles, but the slowdown was purely visual: each hit connected exactly as expected.
There's a button on the handle that realigns the beam if it gets too far out of sync, and as useful as that feature is, we can't help but feel that it's a bit of an omen. It would be easy to assume that the issues were the result of the early build we were playing and could be fixed later, but if it needs a button dedicated to it, it's probably likely to be an ongoing problem.
That wasn't the only issue either. Just like on the HoloLens, the field of view is very limited, at times making it feel like you're looking through a letterbox slot. It's fairly narrow vertically, and horizontally the edges don't extend into your peripherals. It's serviceable enough but it is a little distracting, especially when the droids get up close.
On the visual side of things, the characters look far from photorealistic, but that's really not the point. They all have a stylized, grainy look, complete with the horizontal bars and a blue tinge that accompany holograms in the movies. It's a neat way to hide any potential shortcomings in visual detail, while still feeling authentic and immersive.
That said, it's hard to tell how well the characters would overlay the real world. They looked impressive in the dark booth we played in, but we suspect they might wash out in bright light. Obviously this isn't something you'd whip out in the backyard in the middle of the day, but the Lenovo staff on hand told us that it's about on par with a projector, so just drawing the curtains and dimming the lights should be enough to make the visuals pop.
The app includes a few other game modes as well. In a similar vein to the droid defense game we played, you can also take on bad guys like Darth Vader and Kylo Ren in lightsaber battles. If you want to slow things down a bit, the classic Holochess game we see in A New Hope is now an (augmented) reality, with players directing the alien pieces around the board by pointing the lightsaber stub. And finally, a mode called Strategic Combat turns your living room floor into a warzone between the Rebels and the Empire, in a strategy game that looks like Age of Empires.
We didn't get a chance to try out these other modes, but they sure sound fun. Lenovo also says that more content might be added to the system down the track.
Enticing but pricey
Star Wars: Jedi Challenges includes the AR headset, lightsaber controller, tracking beacon, a phone tray, and three micro USB adapter cables, depending on your phone of choice. At launch, the game works with all models of iPhone from 6 to 8 (although the iPhone X is conspicuously absent), Samsung Galaxy S7, S7 Edge and 8, Google Pixel and Pixel XL, and Moto Z. Lenovo says that other devices will be added later.
Interestingly, the fact that Lenovo names the headset Mirage AR suggests that maybe Jedi Challenges is just the first set of games to play on the hardware. It's not hard to imagine a future where you can add new experiences to an existing headset by buying additional controllers or games.
If that is the case, then it makes the initial purchase a bit easier to swallow. As it stands, US$199 seems a bit pricey for just three games, but the potential for more to be added later on might make it more enticing.
Lenovo's Star Wars: Jedi Challenges will be available November 6 for US$199 (AU$399).
More information: Lenovo