Merge Cube is the AR device you're going to want to buy. (Really.)

Merge Cube is the AR device you're going to want to buy. (Really.)

Launching today, this $14.99 device is a seismic shift in the way you'll think and use augmented reality.

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Virtual reality (VR) may be the flashy Instagram star of the virtual pantheon: the one that has millions of followers and gets all the invites to the A list parties while its cousin, augmented reality (AR), gets second-hand cast-downs and never gets its picture taken. The market says that's about to change.

A new product on sale today, Merge Cube is a $14.99 device many are going to mistake as a toy. The gadget made of soft foam is absolutely toy-like: you can drop the device and it won't break, and you can use the Rubik's Cube-sized object to play a lot of games. Raised symbols trigger apps from the Merge Miniverse to launch when the cube is viewed through a smartphone's camera — either an iOS or Android device. Audio plus 3D imagery pop up where the cube appeared: small cities on each side, a lava-spewing volcano and even a TV from the 1950s (yes, you can see its back when you turn it around) that plays one movie.

The Merge Cube comes alive under a smartphone camera.

Opening the box, buyers are going to feel skeptical. Did they really drop $15 on a foam block their dog could chew in seconds? Yes and yes. But the value of Merge Cube sits with the Merge Cube app, the Merge Miniverse, a portal to dozens of apps launching today for free. Hundreds more will be available in coming today — for free and for sale — which you will buy or download the way people purchase apps on iTunes or Google Play, with the majority priced around $.99 to $1.99, says Dan Worden, executive vice president for Merge.

Before brushing off the idea of using AR on a smartphone, this is not Pokémon Go. You're not just overlaying a simple image into a physical space. Merge is going somewhere further — they're imagining the cube as a gateway to apps that are playful, but also useful. More interesting, though, is the way it uses AR: we think this is the technology at its best. Suddenly, in your hand, is a human skeleton, a planet, a box of fireworks you can light and set off, glowing a flashing in your living room. You can also view everything through a set of VR goggles, like Merge VR, for full immersion.

But the real excitement is seeing an object transform without having glasses strapped to the face. Because now two people, three people, or more can see the same thing together, move the planet from hand to hand, socially engaging with technology without goggles strapped to the face, isolating them into a bubble.

Merge Cube turns into a holographic, AR image when viewed through a smartphone.

Digital technology has changed how we interact in the world. We read on screens: smartphones, tablets, computers. That information engages the visual sense. When holding the Merge Cube, and turning the object around physically while viewing something through a screen, suddenly two senses are sparked: kinesthetic, or muscle memory, and visual.

We tested the device for a couple of days and while we hardly conducted a scientific study, we can safely say that two high-school students and an elementary school teacher were utterly fascinated, all playing games, grabbing the device from hands. At launch, games will include Mr. Body, which brings up close-up organs from the human body, and Th!ngs which includes a group of games including an alien attack battle among others. And partners creating content for the Merge Cube include the American Museum of Natural History, says Merge's Worden.

Merge itself calls the Merge Cube a holographic toy. We think it's a game changer in the VR vs. AR battle, and we're excited to watch the unusually high/low tech device in coming months.

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