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Rick Johnson in the KIRO Radio studios. (Photos by Erynn Rose)

Rick Johnson thinks that the future includes a world where people can take an augmented view of the world around them, whether that’s a wall that can show any kind of artwork, or a cookbook that can show people where to find a spice in their spice rack.

Johnson, a former Valve Software employee and the co-founder of Technical Illusions, which raised more than $1 million to produce its castAR augmented reality glasses, sat down with Todd Bishop and John Cook for last week’s GeekWire podcast to discuss his work on augmented reality and what could be the future of seeing the world around us.

The full interview – which includes a discussion of why Google Glass isn’t actually augmented reality, and some of the potential features of the CastAR glasses – can be found here.

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Todd Bishop talks with Rick Johnson of Technical Illusions on the show while trying the castAR prototype.

On the difference between Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR): “Virtual reality is where the computer renders 100 percent of what you see. You don’t see the physical world at all, it’s all generated by the computer. You could be in a foreign planet, looking around, or inside of a spaceship or a creepy hallway, but you’ll never see the physical world. It’s all computer-generated.

“Augmented reality is a mixture of the physical world and the virtual world. The term augment means, in a simplistic form, that you have a physical object that might be augmented with some text to describe what it is, or you could imagine graffiti on the side of a building.”

On how the castAR glasses were born: “I had been working at Valve for about four years, and Valve hired Jeri Ellsworth to be the first person in the hardware group, because they wanted to explore hardware, Steam Box, and other types of input for gaming environments. And so she was responsible for setting up the hardware lab, and all the hiring and the logistics in that regard. They were working initially on a VR type device. Kind of like one of those Dr. Watson moments, she had inadvertently made a lens backwards, that instead of the image projecting into your eye, it’s shone out into the physical world.

“And there was a piece of this material, the retro-reflective material, off in the distance. And it caught her attention, and she noticed, wow, this is really a bright image. And so she started to explore that even further, and realized this solves a lot of problems. You don’t get nausea, you don’t get motion sickness, it’s a good way to approach things. So she started to develop a hardware based around that.

“I was part of the Linux team, I was one of the three people that started the whole Linux cabal. And I realized that Jeri was working on this cool project, got involved in my spare time to create software for her, and eventually joined her full-time. One day, the world got pulled out underneath us, and we found ourselves leaving Valve, but we were able to convince (Valve Co-Founder) Gabe (Newell) that we poured our hearts into this technology, and to let us have it. Two months later, we got everything legally clear, and we were able to start the company.”

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John Cook uses castAR with a game controller.

On why Valve didn’t want the glasses: “If you think about the type of games that Valve makes, Half-Life and Portal, those are more VR type experiences. The primary focus of what we were doing was initially (Augmented Reality). While we had plans to do virtual reality with this device, we hadn’t really told anybody yet. And so, I think there wasn’t an easy fit for that technology for what Valve was doing at that moment.”

On Technical Illusions’ progress towards producing its glasses: “Right now, we’re taking over everything we can about the production. We have a Japanese partner that’s doing our final optical design, and we’re figuring out the entire production pipeline for these early dev glasses. There’s about 70 glasses that we sold through Kickstarter that we’ll deliver over the summer. We’re actually making about 200 for this production run. Once we get through that, and we understand the production pipeline, then the bulk of the Kickstarter, about 3-4,000 units, will ship out in the fall or winter time.”

On his reaction to Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR, and what Facebook might want with the company:  “If you would have asked me a week ago the top 10 companies that would have been interested in buying Oculus, Facebook wouldn’t have been up there, and so, it kind of caught us by surprise that Facebook was thinking about this area and thinking about hardware. It’s exciting, I think it shows that there’s a lot of interest and a lot of money in this area, and hopefully everybody will win by the time the products come out.

“I think if I were to hazard a guess, I think they were trying to find ways to get into game distribution and other types of distribution to maybe potentially tie advertisement into a more social type experience.”

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