The Avegant Glyph will get you noticed. The consumer version of the projector-headset combo is remarkably more attractive than the prototypes Avegant has shown off in the past, even if wearers will never quite escape looking like LeVar Burton donning a Star Trek VISOR. That might not matter much, as the Glyph is so good at projecting high-resolution video that you may just take the fashion hit. Especially if it means having a home theater for your face.
The Glyph, which costs $699, connects to your smartphone or tablet and beams whatever’s on its screen — Netflix, HBO Now, a mobile game — directly onto your eyes. It creates a virtual viewing experience tailored for television and movies not unlike the wacky head-mounted displays Sony used to sell.
Avegant raised $1.5 million on Kickstarter almost two years ago to build thousands of headsets, and the company is on track to begin shipping its finished product to backers next month, it tells The Verge. By March, the Glyph will be shipping to preorder customers, launch separately in China, and Avegant will go into mass production. For a company that was only five people when it launched its Kickstarter campaign — and has grown to around 30 since — it’s refreshing that Avegant is getting its product out the door on time.
The company’s vision rests on the notion that a standard virtual reality headset is too immersive, enclosing you in a world fit only for your bedroom — and far from real-world interaction, not to mention stairs or sharp objects. The Glyph is "not a virtual reality product," says co-founder Edward Tang. "It’s a premium media product. If you want to consume media on the go, this is the device for you." Essentially, the Glyph floats a screen in front of your face, but doesn’t wrap you in one. It differs from augmented reality, however, because the screen is not transparent and it’s only designed to view existing media, not float virtual objects in the real world.
Avegant is also announcing a partnership with cinematic VR company Jaunt to bring 360-degree video to the Glyph, which means you’ll be able to rotate your head to view real-life events like concerts as well as visits to remote locales. Jaunt provides an ultra-high-quality camera for shooting these videos and a platform to host and deliver them to screens and headsets.
The Glyph floats a screen in front of your face, but doesn't wrap you in one
The Glyph, like most next-generation display technologies, is a use-it-to-believe-it product. It resembles a pair of headphones with the band over your face — and that’s because it’s designed to be a pair of headphones with the band over your face. Instead of staring into a soft leather headband, however, you’re looking through two lenses that receive light from a low-power LED that Tang says is bounced between 2 million micromirrors before it’s blasted onto your retina. Micromirrors, which essentially use microscopic aluminum mirrors to transform light into pixels, are the basis of DLP projection technology, which is how a majority of movie theaters around the globe now screen films digitally. Avegant says it’s packed that technology into a portable headset.
What you see as a viewer is akin to an 80-inch screen viewed 8 feet away from you, in crisp high resolution and with enough space above and below to see your hands, as well as tilt your head to divert your gaze to what’s going on around you. Instead of pressing a screen against your eyes, "your eye is the screen," Tang says. "We think these types of retinal imaging technologies are the future."
The Glyph’s roughly three-hour battery is enclosed, and the device hooks up via HDMI to any screen capable of playing back video or audio, like a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. It can play any stored or streamed video, whether it’s from iTunes, YouTube, or Netflix. In that sense, the Glyph is the fully realized vision Sony first laid out with its now-discontinued HMZ headset line.
Thanks to falling prices for electronics, you can pack the type of technology once reserved for multi-thousand-dollar luxuries into more affordable all-in-one products. And with services like YouTube Red, you can save hours upon hours of video for offline viewing, while Netflix and HBO Go are viable streaming video options for smartphones. So Avegant doesn’t need developers to make the device useful.
The Glyph works as a high-end pair of headphones
The company also wants its headset to work as a stand-alone pair of headphones. The lenses retract back into the headband and a cover can be placed over them for comfort, while the device itself can be put into a passive mode for audio listening that doesn’t depend on the battery. "We’re targeting your Sennheisers," Tang says. The audio quality was noticeably better than my over-the-ear pair of Audio-Technica ATH-M50s, so Tang isn’t just boasting.
The most obvious concern is comfort. Avegant has tried to make the device compatible with as wide of a consumer base as possible. The lenses can be moved horizontally to account for varying distances between users’ eyes, while a variety of nose pads change how snugly the device sits on your head. You can also adjust the picture to account for poor eyesight, and my experience with the device as a glasses-wearer made clear that it's not recommended you try to keep your pair on while using the Glyph.
That may turn off customers who don’t feel comfortable taking off their glasses to view media for short or long periods of time. For the most part, however, the Glyph works as designed, and only takes a few moments for you to fully adjust before sitting back and watching a movie. I wasn’t able to test the viewability and comfort for an extended period of time, but Avegant says the device is designed for multi-hour viewing.
It’s hard not to compare the pricey Glyph to cheaper VR headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR or Google’s Cardboard. You can play mobile games with the Glyph, similar to Samsung's phone-powered headset, using it as a virtual screen while your smartphone or tablet acts as the controller. And 360-degree video, like the kind Glyph will support through its partnership with Jaunt, is something Google has been pushing hard in partnership with news organizations and educational institutions.
Avegant doesn't want to be associated with VR, for now
Yet Avegant doesn’t want to be associated with VR. Tang says a device’s usefulness should be judged by how well it fits into someone’s daily lifestyle. And while VR from Samsung is in fact portable, it’s not advisable to wear it in public, where you can get your bag stolen or, even worse, fall onto the subway tracks on your daily commute.
The Avegant isn’t much better, but the amount of peripheral vision you retain adds an extra layer of comfort to using the device outside of your home. Fundamentally, Tang thinks the dominant displays of the future are "not going to be screens," at least not those we press up against our eyes.
We tried out the Samsung Gear VR in different settings to see what wearing a headset in the real world would be like