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Hands-on with VR Projector SCALee

Immersive virtual reality (VR) entertainment comes in all shapes and sizes. Generally when talking about VR most people will instantly think of head-mounted displays (HMDs) like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive if they’ve been following current VR news, or just big bulky headsets like those used in Hollywood movies. There are companies trying alternatives though, bridging the gap between fully realised virtual worlds and technology that’s slightly more accessible. French company Scale-1 Portal is doing just that with SCALee, a portable VR projector designed for home use.

SCALee had its first official showcasing at the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) 2016, in the VR section next to giant global brands such as Oculus VR. Stepping into the booth’s demonstration area it was bare and for good reason. Apart from the white wall for the projected image the only other piece of equipment was the SCALee unit itself, nestled on the floor.

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The first thing to notice is the projector’s diminutive size and location to the wall. Easy to pick up and move around, the unit is able to operate reasonably close to an intended projection surface depending on the size of image required. This is an obvious design advantage intended for consumers to use it in different sized rooms.

Scale-1 Portal has got a number of titles in the works for the system, with the one on offer at CES 2016 being Future Runner, an on-rails dodging videogame where you have to gain a highscore by grabbing as many points as possible whilst avoiding obstacles. Future Runner requires a set of 3D glasses, similar to those for 3D TV’s and the cinema. Once on you stand in the middle behind the projector and initialise a quick calibration, whereby the user moves their arms from their waist up similar to a bird flapping its wings, to their head. When completed the videogame begins, leisurely at first down a tight industrial looking tunnel with metal beams jutting out and crates on the floor.

And this is where some space is needed to move, no more than the screen width on a horizontal plane, meaning no forwards or backwards movement being required. As the title progresses you begin to find yourself moving more and more, shimmying left to right, ducking under low beams and so fourth. And it works relatively well, squeezing past the various obstacles coming your way as they get denser and the speed picks up. You can also use your hands to grab at the glowing orbs dotted along the course, each colour with its own numerical value.

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There will always be areas in videogames where you shout at the screen and say ‘I made that!’ and Future Runner is undoubtedly one of those titles that will incur a gamer’s wrath. The collision detection seemed fine at points and wildly out at others, with some sections feeling untraversable without a knock or two. But it was still fun to play and would really suit a living room space where a group can play against each other, fighting for the highest score.

Viewing a small consumer projector at an event is never going to show it as its best, with so much ambient light around from multiple different sources it’s difficult to tell how good the contrast ratio and colour gamut are. From first observations the image quality was reasonable, but blacks weren’t black, rather a washy dark grey, while the colours looked rather flat and lacked vibrancy. The image was clear enough to be able to interact with the experience but would benefit from a darker environment. The 4000 lumens listed on the specifications is more than enough light output for its intended home use, matching decent quality HD home cinema projectors.

The SCALee is a unique idea that seeks to meld VR with home entertainment and this current prototype seems well on the way to achieving that goal. When a wider choice of software to test becomes available it’ll be worth seeing how versatile the system really is.

  1. This isn’t very well explained or I’m being a bit thick. How exactly does this differ from a large (therefore immersive) projected image (I’m thinking Soaring Over California at Disneyland), with 3D? Or – how is this VR?

    1. This is like a one-wall version of the CAVE, invented at University of Illinois at Chicago back in 1991. VR falls into two broad categories: head-mounted and non-head-mounted. But both work on the principle of slightly different images being processed by each eye to create a stereoscopic image in the viewers vision. Systems like Scalee, and the original CAVE, show left and right images overlaid on each other, and then the glasses quickly shutter left and right lenses in a super-fast alternating pattern to trick them into only seeing the correct image for each eye. I don’t know how Scalee works, but the original CAVE as I recall used LCD shutter glasses. I’ve been in the original CAVE, the new CAVE2 (also by UIC – it’s far and away the state of VR art), and also have several of the current HMD rigs. Not yet a Scalee though. But, the CAVE/wall approach, in my personal experience, generated alot less eye fatigue, headaches and motion sickness.

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