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  • 4 minute Read

This VR Headset Has A Secret Weapon: A 3D Scanner

Depth awareness gives this headset superpowers.

How do you turn physical spaces into digital ones? That’s a question that the three-year-old startup Occipital is trying to answer with products that range from its successful Structure Sensor, which captures 3D models of environments, to Canvas, its new, design-oriented iPad app that uses the Structure Sensor to turn 3D scans of spaces into usable digital models.

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Now Occipital is launching the next tool in its mission to merge physical and digital spaces: A mobile headset called Bridge, compatible with iPhone 6, 6s, and 7, that uses the company’s Structure Sensor placed above the headset’s goggles to mix virtual reality with physical reality.

Bridge uses the 3D scanner to solve one of VR’s biggest problems—depth awareness–making it easier to prototype mixed reality experiences ranging from VR to AR and everything in between. For example, Bridge can tell where you are in your own space, and adapt the virtual world you’re seeing in the headset to what’s really around you, realistically mixing the real world with the virtual one. It’s something that other mobile headsets like Cardboard and Daydream can’t do yet, though most major VR makers are working on it. For example, Google’s developer toolkit Tango gives devices spatial awareness, and depth sensing is reportedly coming to the HTC Vive. Earlier this year, Intel announced a completely mobile VR headset that uses cameras to position the user in space.

Yet Bridge isn’t necessarily meant for consumers interested in buying a VR headset. In fact, most existing VR experiences don’t even have positional tracking enabled (though Occipital built a plugin to allow developers to quickly add it to their existing apps). Until they do, a consumer would really only be able to use Bridge as a fancy version of Google Cardboard. Instead, Bridge is designed for developers who want to play and build mixed reality experiences and apps with the integrated software toolkit.

“Positional VR is here and mixed reality is coming, and you can, with a relatively inexpensive device that uses the phone that you have, you can basically develop for both of those worlds and also share your stuff with anybody easily,” says Jeff Powers, the CEO and co-founder of Occipital. “If you’re a developer, I think the pitch is pretty solid.”

The company demonstrated what its software can do through a cute AR robot named Bridget. After the attached Structure Sensor scans the room and gives the iPhone a few seconds to register the space, on goes the headset, and up pops Bridget inside your space. The little robot can move to wherever you ask in your room, avoiding any obstacles, like chairs or tables, that stand in her way, demonstrating how developers can use Bridge to program their characters to interact with user’s unique spaces in real life. Throw a ball for Bridget to retrieve, and it realistically bounces against walls and furniture—a feature showing how the software has taken physics into account in its rendering of mixed reality. Another option opens up a portal into a completely virtual world. Stepping inside reveals the interior of a spaceship with a planet looming on the horizon, but look back and you can see the real room you were just standing in.

“The understanding that a lot of people are coming to now is that mixed reality is part of the future and the ability to just visualize things in your world is definitely something that you will use,” Powers says. “Maybe it’ll take the form of some amazing glasses that you can wear, or some contact lenses even further in the future. But for the next few years we need a way to do this and start developing these experiences.”

Bridge is less expensive than Oculus Rift or HTC Vive (the whole system costs around $400), and it’s also mobile—it can be thrown in a backpack and taken to a client without losing the positional tracking that most mobile headsets lack. As a designer or architect, you could easily share your 3D models–or 3D scans of an existing space–with your client. Powers imagines film scouts scanning potential locations and sending them to directors, who could experience them in virtual reality through Bridge. “I’m kind of jealous of the developers that will get to come and take advantage of all this,” says Powers.

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We’re a long way from a world permeated by augmented reality or glasses that have mixed reality technology built into them. “But what’s cool for us is we’re building a lot of the fundamental software that’s going to have to exist for those things to be worth it,” says Occipital’s other co-founder, Vikas Reddy. He believes that the kinds of applications that will be possible to build using Bridge and Occipital’s software technology are truly going to shape the future of computing.

In that way, Bridge is aptly named—it’s designed to serve as a connector from today’s VR and AR technology to a truly augmented future.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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