What is Project North Star?

Project North Star is an open source augmented reality headset. It was initially released by LeapMotion (now UltraLeap) in 2018 and is currently supported by its open source community.

There have been several iterations of the headset since the project began. The latest build is Northstar Next.

Augmented Reality vs Virtual Reality

As opposed to Virtual Reality, where the user's view is generated entirely by a computer, Augmented Reality projects a rendered image over the real-world perspective of the user. This gives an effect of the rendered objects existing in the real world.

To achieve this effect, an AR headset can use either a "pass-through" or a transparent optical system. A pass-through display streams the outside world to an enclosed LCD/LED screen. A transparent optical system projects an image which is reflected off a lens in front of the user's field of view. Project North Star uses a transparent optical system.

How the headset works

Though an AR headset is a very complex device, we can simplify it by separating its hardware and software into different components, each of which serve a specific function.

Project North Star develops and/or sources the parts for each of these components, and provides instructions to combine them into a complete headset. Each headset version is comprised of different iterations of some or all of these parts.

Each of these components can separated into the following categories:

  • Display: The hardware that produces the images.

  • Optics: Lenses which bend light from the image so it is in-focus for the user.

  • Sensors: Hardware and software that track the user's position and orientation through space.

  • Hand-tracking: Hardware and software that allows the user to interact with the artificial objects and environment.

  • Integrator: Hardware and software that allows each component to communicate with each other.

  • Runtime: Software that acts as an intermediary between user applications and hardware.

  • Assembly: Hardware that houses all the components to create an complete headset.

This separation of responsibility allows for different open or closed source solutions to be used in a headset, resulting in a modular design.

Sourcing and Manufacturing

The challenges in this space are not limited to technological problems. Few people have the means to fabricate Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs), lenses, and LCD screens. So maintaining Project Northstar also means project contributors find and work with manufacturers and distributors for bespoke electronics. This influences both the design and availability of the headsets.

Advantage of Open Source Design

With an active community, open documentation, and modular design, Project Northstar's headsets are customizable and repairable in a way that no other closed-source headset is. Anyone can contribute to the project. So the more its users customize and upgrade their devices, the more the project benefits as a whole.

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