Any time now, the supposed new wave of wearable electronics will start living up to the hype. I say that because the few big-name products that have trickled out so far have looked anything but revolutionary, and more like offshoots of technologies of which many are already familiar. Smartwatches like Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, for instance, are essentially wrist-sized smartphones. And activity-tracking bracelets like Fitbit and Nike+Fuelband? Think computer-enhanced pedometers. Meanwhile, more ambitious, futuristic projects like Google Glass have been beset with beta phase growing pains.
Developers of the Avegant Glyph 3D wearable display claim that their technology has the goods to be a real game changer. Instead of a conventional screen, the visuals of movies, games and desktops are beamed directly into the wearer's eyeballs through a patented "virtual retina" system. And unlike some of the more fringe ideas out there, the $500 headset, in prototype form, is designed to be plug-and-play, meaning it's seamlessly compatible with Android and iOS devices, Xbox, PCs and any form of media that can be streamed via an HDMI cable.
The device looks like typical pair of over-the-ear headphones, except that the headband is actually a built-in visor piece that folds down over your eyes, LeVar Burton-style from "Star Trek." So, how does this personal movie theater work? Well, light from low-powered color LED is sent onto an array of two billion miniaturized mirrors (one billion for each eye) that alter the light to form a two- or three-dimensional image (1,280 by 800 pixels in resolution) that's then reflected towards the person's retina. This method of projecting the image right onto the eye, rather than onto a glowing LCD screen, allows for greater brightness and clarity, and it's more in line with how the human eye bends bounced light to make out objects and other stimuli in the real world.
The concept received a lot of attention last month, when the startup raised more than $1.5 million in a Kickstarter campaign that had a funding goal of $250,000. Consumer pundits who've tried the headset have so far been impressed with the richness of the visuals when doing things like watching movies, playing games or interfacing with their phones. Jonathan Fincher, a writer at Gizmag wrote that "it's basically like having a crystal clear HD screen right in front of your face, but without a hint of pixelation," and CNET's Scott Stein, in describing his experience, observed that "a deep-sea 3D movie looked like it was projected in a tiny little movie theater in front of my eyes."
Glyph has its flaws though too. For example, testers have reported experiencing some discomfort when wearing the headset for any extended amount of time, saying it's particularly rough on the nose. "We've been told that the fit can be quite cumbersome," says Avegant's marketing manager Grant Martin. "The way we're going to address that is investing in a redesign that should work out some of these ergonomic kinks and make it more comfortable to wear by the time it goes into production before the end of the year."
Company co-founders Allan Evans and Edward Tang wanted to explore whether the technology, originally developed for the military as a way to reduce the eyestrain associated with night vision goggles, could be re-packaged as a consumer product. They pieced together a proof-of-concept that ultimately took up as much space as a coffee table. Just being able to hack a working system was encouraging though, and they moved forward with modifications to dial down the power and light source. Eventually, they shrunk the contraption to something that resembled a pair of heavy glasses.
The latest iteration includes head-tracking sensors for first-person 3D gaming, noise-canceling earphones and a rechargeable battery that should last up to three hours. Besides movies and video games, the company points out that the headset has the potential for an even wider scope of applications, such as conference calling and FaceTime. Other more novel possibilities include movies with a special interactive component, wherein, for instance, scenes can be altered as sensors pick up on the person's mood changes based on physiological changes detected through the skin.
"I'm sure there are many uses we haven't even thought of. The hard thing for us is that we're putting out a brand new platform," says Martin. "So we're going to be leaning on what we're hoping will be a strong community of developers and others who want to discuss ideas on the website forum. As a startup, it's a very hands-on, laborious task."
The public might think of the Glyph as just another version of Oculus Rift, a highly-anticipated virtual reality headset for home consumers that's expected to hit the market in late 2014. Though the comparisons are inevitable, a big difference, the company points out, is that while OR primarily targets gamers and blocks out their surroundings by enclosing them in an immersive virtual reality environment, the Glyph allows users to consume media in more traditional ways. The eyepiece doesn't completely cover the wearer's peripheral field of vision. "With the LCDs Oculus Rift uses, you'll still get problems like blurred pixelation and eyestrain that's common with screen-based displays," Martin says. "The micro-mirror system we use eliminates a lot of these issues."
"What we're mainly happy with right now is the core technology," he adds. "People are blown away by it."