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Bird's-eye view: using Avegant's Glyph headset to pilot a drone

Bird's-eye view: using Avegant's Glyph headset to pilot a drone

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Despite my best efforts over the years I have never managed to master the art of lucid dreaming. My nightly visions come and go as they please. So when a dream arrives and I find myself flying, it’s always an unexpected and terrifying treat. But earlier this week I found myself soaring above the earth, skyscrapers in the distant background, ships gently rocking on the water below. I was wide awake, wearing the Avegant Glyph headset and piloting a DJI Inspire 1 drone.

The Glyph began as something in between the Oculus Rift and Google Glass, a slightly less intimidating piece of headgear that would allow for immersive experiences but not completely shut out the world around you. That makes it the perfect equipment for flying from a first-person view (FPV). In FPV you often need to slip back and forth between the onscreen visual and the real world drone. With the Glyph, I just had to drop my chin toward my chest and cast my eyes above the screen to find the drone hovering in the sky.

Drone racing and FPV flying are suddenly trendy

Flying FPV is not new, I did it for the first time a year ago at CES 2015, and hobbyists were pulling it off well before that. I even did it indoors this summer with the Blade QX Nano FPV, a drone that fits snugly in my palm but incredibly still manages to transmit a decent video signal back to a pair of FatShark glasses.

The difference between the Glyph and most of the FPV setups used for drone racing is that they rely on an analog signal, which has less latency than a digital setup. That’s a big deal when you’re trying to fly through hoops and make hairpin turns at 100 miles per hour. The advantage of a digital signal is a higher quality image, and the Glyph delivered a crystal clear live stream with sharp picture and vivid colors. The lag between the moves I made with the controller and the image was a small fraction of a second, enough to bother a high speed racer, perhaps, but nothing that impeded my experience. That higher quality does come at a price. The Glyph costs $699, which is a few hundred dollars more than the typical high-end FPV headset, but of course that is just a side piece to what it really wants to be: a portable, immersive, head-mounted movie theater.

Flying with head tracking is a thrilling experience

When used with the Inspire 1, the Glyph’s head tracking can control the orientation of the camera. I tried this first with another person piloting, acting as the camera operator. It’s ridiculously fun to have someone else take care of the flying and enjoy a full 360 degrees of view from the air. My companion Grant Martin, a product manager at Avegant, says he has gotten into flying a drone over the field for his ultimate frisbee league, leaving it to hover, and simply watching the game from above, allowing the way he follows the game to dictate the camera movement.

You can also pilot the drone and control the camera with head tracking simultaneously, but this gets tricky very fast. It’s easy to lose track of the difference between your aircraft’s orientation and your cameras, although a tap on the trigger button of the DJI remote resets your camera to center. I found it best to keep the camera fixed horizontally, but allow head tracking to pan up and down.

This gadget is great for anyone into FPV flying, but that is a pretty tiny market. So what exactly is the Glyph, and who is going to buy one? First off, it doesn’t have a screen. According to the company’s website "The Glyph recreates natural sight ... Avegant’s patented Retinal Imaging Technology uses advanced optics and microscopic mirrors to project images directly to the eyes. It’s more like seeing than watching."

For a long time we talked about the Glyph as a virtual reality headset, but the company says that’s not the goal. It wants to be known as a "personal theater," the kind of thing you would bring on a long airplane flight to get lost in a film. The ability to easily peek out and see reality is meant to be a feature, not a bug. It’s hoping that form factor will make it more "socially acceptable" and less "intimidating" to wear in public, according to Martin.

avegant glyph

Our sister site Polygon loved the finished version, and I had a great experience flying with it. When we were done with the drone, Grant and I headed to a local coffeeshop. It was full of light, loud people, crying babies, and Tom Petty on the sound system. But when I slipped on the Glyph, it was possible to forget all that. The headphones do a great job blocking out external noise. The image was great, with no visible pixels. I did struggle a bit to find the perfect focal point, something the company claims would improve after I wore it for a few hours.

2016 will be an interesting year. A number of high-profile VR headsets will hit the market, and we’ll finally get to see just how much consumer demand there is for this new format. In the meantime, however, it seems like a safe bet that there will be a lot of 360-degree video created and a lot of drones sold. The Glyph dovetails nicely into these rapidly growing categories, while making a compelling case as a stand-alone viewer for more traditional media. I’m not going to make a wild prediction about how well it will sell, but if you’re a drone enthusiast interested in flying FPV outside the race track, this is a gadget worth your while.