Picture it: you're sitting on the plane or in the doctor's waiting room, listening to music on a large, good-looking set of headphones. You decide you'd rather catch up on Justified, or play a little Call of Duty. You tip your headphones forward until the broad white band is now in front of your face, and suddenly your show or game appears on the underside. It's like watching an 80-inch TV, except the picture you're seeing isn't on an LCD screen — it's being projected directly into your eyes.
If Edward Tang is right, this is the new normal. The Avegant CEO is getting ready to launch the Glyph, a $499 headset designed to turn the immersive experience of the Oculus Rift into something decidedly more mainstream. It looks like a hefty pair of black or white headphones, but it's that display that makes the Glyph matter.
Its most important underpinning technology is called Virtual Retinal Display, which offers Avegant a distinct advantage over competitors like Oculus and Google Glass. Those are fundamentally screens, a picture you look at — Avegant's technology is more like looking through a window. "We’re trying to recreate your vision as closely as possible," Tang says. "Look at how you naturally see. When you look around the room, your eyes don’t get tired. You can see 3D. And you don’t get nauseous or get headaches around the normal world." Everything we see in real life is simply light reflected off something else, and that's what the Glyph is, too. It reflects that light off of 2 million micromirrors, and then directly into your eye. There is no image, no screen; pictures exist only in your retinas and your brain.
Virtual Retinal Displays create a picture without ever needing a screen
Virtual Retinal Displays are also lighter, require less power, and can project a much sharper image. I've only seen a couple of early prototypes of the Glyph, but the picture I see already looks beautiful: high-res, colorful, and accurate, with none of the screen-door effect or pixellation of a device like the Rift. And since you see Glyph the same way you see the world, there's no eye fatigue, no readjustment period when you're done watching. It took me an eye-watering minute or two to get the Glyph perfectly adjusted to my eyes and face, and from then on it felt perfectly natural.
The tech has been around for two decades, and a company called Microvision even made a spirited effort to turn it into a product. But the "Nomad Expert Technician System" was expensive and hard to manufacture, and looked more like a 1970s Halloween costume or Marty McFly's JVC glasses than something people would actually use.
Over a few years of development and research, the Avegant team has found a way to turn previously unwieldy technology into something product-sized. The prototype I used was nearly the size of the Oculus Rift, but Tang promised the Glyph will be more like a big pair of on-ear headphones — light, comfortable, and familiar. He's obsessed with how it looks: "We want to make a technology that looks good to me when I’m wearing it, it looks good to you when I’m wearing it around you — I have to feel comfortable wearing it around other people."
For all the futuristic display technology, the Glyph's initial functionality is simple. It's designed to be completely plug-and-play: Life of Pi displayed perfectly in 3D without any tweaking, and I played Call of Duty: Ghosts right off a PlayStation 3. All you need to do is to tune the glasses — you focus each eye individually, then set the two eyeholes the right distance apart so they create a single picture. From then on, content just works.
The Virtual Retinal Display prototype
In Call of Duty, the Glyph was mapped to the right analog stick on my controller. When I turned my head, so did my character. This happened with no work from either Infinity Ward or Avegant, but the real possibilities will come if the company can convince developers to build specifically for its platform. Tang imagined installing a 360-degree camera at a football game, so you can put on the Glyph and look around from the 50-yard line. Glyph could replace your computer monitor, and movies could be both surround sound and surround picture.
Half the Glyph's appeal is that it already works with existing content
The Glyph doesn't take over your entire field of vision, instead filling about 45 degrees with a picture. You can still look down at your keyboard, or to the sides at the world around you. It's made to be out in the world — unlike the Oculus Rift, which is designed to be completely immersive, and used with a PC in your living room, Tang is thinking mostly about your smartphone. "We have great AAA titles on things like the PlayStation and the Xbox," he says, "but that experience we haven’t seen quite move to the mobile device. It’s not because the power isn’t there — your iPhone or Android devices are incredibly powerful. They’re as powerful as the Xbox 360 today. By giving developers that level of premium audio and video experiences on the go, it could really change how they develop for these platforms." That's when it'll become more than a better screen for watching Netflix.
A prototype of the Glyph's headphones
The Glyph is coming later in 2014 — a Kickstarter campaign for preorders begins January 22nd. Its real hurdle won't be the technology, which is both established and obviously useful, but rather social acceptance. Will people want to wear a device that turns from hefty headphones into a wild, Cyclops-style visor? So many people are perfectly content playing games on the small screens in their pockets; can Avegant convince them to want something more?
Worst case, Avegant hopes we'll buy them because they're great headphones — wild tech aside, the company imagines the Glyph will mostly be for listening. But eventually, maybe, we'll flip them down and see what happens. Confused onlookers be damned.