Is depth-sensing camera technology the future? We find out with Acer's latest desktop replacement laptop
On first glance, Acer’s Aspire V17 Nitro appears to be rather small scale; the chassis remains the same, as do the garish red LEDs that illuminate the keyboard when working in the dark. It sticks with a tried-and-tested Intel Haswell 4th Generation Core i7 processor, rather than the latest Broadwell CPUs. It even has a previous generation Nvidia GeForce 860m graphics card, rather than the latest 900-series silicon. Instead, the major upgrade this year comes in the form of a 3D mapping, depth-sensing RealSense camera. We got the chance to try it out and see if it’s a worthy addition to Acer’s flagship desktop replacement ahead of CES, in order to bring you some first impressions.
RealSense technology was developed by Intel, and uses a combination of regular camera sensor, infrared sensor and laser projector to sense depth and scan objects for 3D modelling. It fits into the same space as a traditional webcam, so the V17 Nitro is no thicker than the outgoing model to accomodate it, although it’s a little wider as it has multiple lenses rather than one.
We tried both preinstalled applications designed to take advantage of RealSense, cartoon game Wave Warrior and 3D mapping tool 3DMe, but unfortunately they don’t really paint the technology in the best light. The former is a simple game that uses your hand gestures to guide animcated characters around the screen, like a modern reinterpretation of Lemmings. It recognises individual fingers, yes, but it’s done on an entirely 2D plane and doesn’t take advantage of depth at all. While it accurately tracked our movements, it could only do so around a foot away from the camera lens – we moved back slightly mid-game and failed the puzzle when it lost track of our hand movements.
3DMe, meanwhile, at least uses the depth-mapping and scanning features to better effect, but it is still very limited. We had hoped it would let us hold up objects to be scanned and turned into 3D models, but instead it simply digitises your face and overlays it on a virtual avatar. It wouldn’t even recognise our face after several minutes of trying, and the image resolution was disappointingly low. Other people got it to work after a little moving back and forth towards the camera, but we were hardly blown away by the results.
With no other software to put RealSense to the test, it remains to be seen whether it will get enough developer support to become something truly useful in time.
The laptop itself feels practically identical to the old model in everyday use. We liked the bright, colourful 17.3in display, although we’re surprised there’s no option for a high resolution display; 1080p is great, but when you can specify a 4k screen on the smaller 15in model the extra physical size seems wasted on 1,920×1,080 pixels. At least viewing angles were excellent, thanks to the IPS panel.
Typing was comfortable on the full-size keyboard, with the isolated keys a sensible distance from one another. The red backlight only really helps out in the dark, but the effect can still be seen during the day; thankfully it’s possible to turn it off, should you want to save what little battery the V17 Nitro has. The touchpad was a little fiddly, sometimes failing to recognise our multitouch gestures in Windows, but this may have been bcause it was a pre-production prototype.
RealSense has potential, but the applications Acer has decided to bundle with its first compatible laptop are limited in scope. We can’t wait to see what developers come up with in the future, but right now it’s more fun distraction than must-have feature. We’ll be giving it a more in-depth test as soon as the Aspire V17 Nitro officially launches. That shouldn’t be too long, either; Acer expects the laptop to go on sale later this month for €1,299.