Unlike the Oculus Rift’s focus on virtual reality, or Google Glass which forces a heads-up display into every facet of life, the Glyph is a media-centric device. For now, it offers a nice pair of high-end headphones with a headband that can transform into an immersive display.
The $499 wearable headset, complete with over-the-ear headphones, uses a new display technology the company called “Virtual Retina Display”. The Virtual Retina Display involves no screen at all, instead projecting images directly onto the retina with a complex array of LEDs and mirrors.
According to co-founder Ed Tang, this is meant to mimic the way our eyes work in real life, when they aren’t focused in on a computer or TV or smartphone screen, providing a much sharper, more realistic viewing experience.
The Glyph isn’t supposed to be a virtual reality device that cuts you off. Instead, it’s meant to be a headphone replacement with an optional display.
The Glyph can work natively with any audio or video source (including Xbox, smartphones, Netflix, etc.) through an HDMI/HML cord, and Avegant ensures that users can get to whatever content they want from anywhere in the world through a single cable.
But what about head-tracking?
The Glyph is packed with a 3-axis Gyro, accelerometer, and a digital magnetometer to allow for head-tracking when content is compatible. Tang claims that the team is working on mapping the headtracker to a mouse, with the goal of making most PC-based first person games will work right out of the box.
Later on, they’ll release some developer tools to give coders the option to build out mobile-based content.
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We caught up with co-founder Ed Tang to discuss the instant success on Kickstarter and future plans for the Glyph.
TechCrunch: Can you give me a little background on Avegant as a company?
Ed Tang: My co-founder, Allan Evans, was getting his PhD at U of Michigan and doing advanced research on various medical devices and microsystems. He was working on projects for the U.S. government’s national research lab while he was out there, and was encouraged by people in the military to look into building new display technology. For things like night vision and other military uses, the performance has always been really bad on these displays, which causes a lot of eye strain after more than an hour, and users become actively tired.
So he approached things from an engineering standpoint as well as a physiological standpoint, thinking about how we, as humans, see. Our eyes get tired if we stare at displays, but when I look out the window or around the room, things are comfortable and realistic. So we chose to replicate the kind of light we see in real life, which is reflective light. Emissive light doesn’t have the same properties that make it less exhausting and more realistic.
The system he built is a virtual retina display, and it’s a display with no screen. Instead the image is being projected onto the retina, the way we see things in normal life, with a very low-power LED. Kind of like the flashlight on the end of a keychain.
The cool thing is that anything you put into this technology, from a movie to a game or whatever, looks so much more crisp and vivid and comfortable, than any other display we have ever seen.
So once we realized what it could do, we had to make it smaller. At the beginning of last year, the prototypes were the size of a coffee table, and it felt like going to an eye doctor exam. You sat down in this huge machine, and adjusted various objects around you, with tons of cords. Still, we proved the concept, which let us raise a little funding from friends and family, which let us repackage it into the size of a big pair of glasses.
We had some great reviews on that product, and after talking to consumers and looking at test cases, seeing how people wanted to use this, we realized that people are engaging more and more with mobile devices, and less and less with TVs at home. Most of what people do with their smartphones and tablets is watching videos, playing games and listening to music.
The device that really wins is the one that fits what people want to do today, which meant building a very premium set of headphones into this revolutionary display tech. That way, when you want video content, you can flip down the headband and turn headphones into a display.
When we looked at other head-mounted display tech out there, there was never a good audio solution paired with it. We knew we had to change that. But one of the challenges is that if we’re going to replace someone’s high-end headphones, our product has to be really good. People are picky about headphones.
TC: So how did you go about doing that? Do you have people on your team focused solely on the audio experience?
ET: We have a couple of audio engineers on our team. One worked on projects for TI, Amazon, and Google, and they were both trained by the top audio engineers in the world. They helped us a lot on our current design.
We benchmarked our headphones against all of the competing high-end headphones out there, from Sennheiser to Audio Technica to Bose or anything else we could find over $300, and we feel we match up against the best of them. We want the user to start out with a really accurate, super precise sound and then slightly tune it to be more pleasing.
I’d gladly put our headphones up against any audio product over $300.
TC: In your Kickstarter video, you had some great endorsements from Second Life and High Fidelity founder Philip Rosedale and Netflix VP of IT Operations Mike Kail. Why are other people so excited about the Glyph?
ET: These endorsements are well deserved. When it comes to the Glyph and partners, it’s more about helping the entire industry, not about us.
Many people we talk to believe that video won’t stay the same as it is today, where it’s a passive experience around your TV. We’re going to see a massive change in how consumers consume media and what we’re doing here with Glyph is something that excites people in the industry.
For Philip, a realistic looking head-mounted display is the key to virtual reality. It’s what’s always been missing, to let you look around and hear audio change as you turn your head. So that the experience is truly immersive and convincing.
Netflix, on the other hand, is an interesting company that has changed its business model a number of times, from DVD rental to streaming to content creation. This company has seen a huge decline in traditional media delivery first hand, and is being proactive about the future of the mobile market. As bandwidth has gotten cheaper and faster, people can use Netflix on their phone, but the device that delivers the best experience hasn’t reached market yet.
TC: Aside from similar devices we’ve seen from Sony and other large players, the Oculus Rift seems to be one of your competitors in the head-mounted, virtual reality display space. How do you differentiate?
ET: We actually don’t consider ourselves direct competitors with Oculus. They’re solely focused on virtual reality, and growing interest and excitement in the virtual reality space again.
This is fantastic for us, because the more familiar people get with head-mounted displays, the better it is for all of us. That includes Oculus and Google Glass and anything else. But while Oculus is focused on virtual reality, we’re focused on more general audience use.
We want the business professional, or even my mother to use the Glyph. These are people that really want to engage in media and play games and watch movies and listen to music. The Glyph is a multimedia device for every day use, and people listen to more music than they watch video.
So we built something that let them switch from one to the other easily, when they want it.
Another big differentiator between what we do and straight virtual reality is how cut off from the rest of the world you are. You can’t hear or see anything around you. We don’t want to do that.
If you’re going to use our product in the airport or on the train, you need to feel comfortable, so we tried to maximize peripheral vision around the user. That way, when the drink cart comes by on a plane or the passenger next to you wants to go to the bathroom, you know what’s going on.
TC: One of the biggest issues with wearable tech has been that mainstream audiences have trouble wearing their technology. Google Glass and Oculus Rift target geekier, more tech-savvy audiences who are more willing to adopt. How do you plan to tackle the mainstream audience who seems to be resistant to wearables?
ET: When you look at wearable technology, everybody is focused on the technology and not the wearable part. If people aren’t willing to wear it, it doesn’t matter how cool the technology is. I have Google Glass but I feel really uncomfortable wearing it. People stare at you and look at you funny. When I’m just hanging out and talking to my buddy, there’s this thing in between us all the time.
That’s why we went after the headphone form factor. You can wear the Glyph just as you do any other headphones. Since people engage in audio way more than video most of the time, they can replace the headphones they already own and feel totally normal wearing the product. No one around you will think you’re doing something weird by wearing them.
But when you want to tune out the rest of the world and watch a movie, you can flip down the visor and watch movies. We look at it as one small step toward wearable technology, because we’ve given the user something they’re already comfortable with wearing and added an extra feature to it.
That’s why I think the smartwatch will be so successful. Because people already wear watches, so it doesn’t look weird or out of place.
TC: You’ve raised your $250k goal in less than four hours, and it doesn’t look like demand is slowing down. We’ve seen many Kickstarter projects blow past their goal and later run into manufacturing or shipping issues. Are you prepared to supply this sort of demand?
ET: We’ve prepped all of our manufacturing for low quantity and high quantity demand.
For the foreseeable future, we’ll be just fine with this demand. On our Kickstarter pages, we’re claiming a December delivery date, but we expect to have units ready to ship a few months before that. We’ve manufactured a lot of these components already in lower quantities as a test run, to explore and answer all of these questions. And we feel very confident.
Now, it’s just about taking current prototypes we have and improving fit and finish. The prototypes look great and image quality is fantastic, but we want a premium quality product that isn’t even a little bit bulky or heavy. We’re not worried about manufacturing because having more units actually makes it easier for us to scale our model.
Building 1,000 units is easier than building 100.
TC: Companies have been trying this sort of technology for years. What has changed over time that makes this a viable product with lots of demand?
ET: People have been trying to do this for ten or twenty years, but there are a number of reasons why it hasn’t picked up at all.
First, the visual experience has to be there. There hasn’t been a head-mounted display that has a good enough visual experience. The Glyph experience isn’t just decent, it’s better than a TV or a movie theater. In fact, it’s ruined going to the movies for me.
The second thing is form factor. It has to fit in your life. It can’t be something extra you have to carry or something cumbersome that isn’t comfortable to wear. By replacing headphones, the Glyph takes up the same spot in your bag, and even if you don’t watch a lot of video you still have fantastic headphones.
The third factor is that it has to work with people’s existing content. People want to watch their own stuff, portably, and they want to be able to watch it on all the devices they have today. It has to be battery-powered with a single cable. The Glyph runs all the content you already own.
I never wanted to build something that required developers to create content for it. I would hate selling something to someone on Kickstarter and having to tell them that they won’t see good content for it for another six months.
The last part is audio. If you don’t combine audio with it than you only offer part of the experience. It’s the key to letting the general consumer adopt this technology.