When I first put on the Mira Prism augmented reality headset, I was skeptical. AR is a proven concept in fields like surgery and mechanics, but nobody’s made a good pair of glasses for everyday use. They’re not cheap enough, they’re not sleek enough, and there’s not enough to do on them. But as I was surprised to find, Mira isn’t just another company with a clunky proof of concept and some big promises. Yes, the Prism is as weird-looking as lots of AR headsets — and for most people, it’ll be more novel than useful — but it’s the first headset I’ve seen that won’t charge you hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for that novelty.
The Mira Prism doesn’t contain any electronics. It’s a shell like Samsung’s Gear VR or Google’s Daydream View, but for augmented reality. To use it, you open a Mira-enabled app on your iPhone, then slide it into the Prism. The screen faces away from you and toward a transparent visor, which reflects the image back across your vision. Objects appear to float in front of you, rendered in stereoscopic 3D. The experience is very different from “mixed reality” that pipes a camera feed into a VR headset, because you’re seeing the real world at full resolution through your own eyes.
I tried out a simple Mira Prism demo, controlling a spaceship with the Prism’s Google Daydream-style remote. The hardware and software have some distinctly rough edges. The spaceship lagged a little, albeit not more than I’d have expected from phone-based iOS augmented reality. In order to “pin” objects to the real world, Mira uses a printed marker, rather than detecting edges or planes. And the objects look far less solid than those produced by Microsoft HoloLens.
At the same time, the Prism’s field of view is higher than that of smaller, slicker-looking AR glasses, thanks to those giant lenses. The headset itself is more comfortable than I expected, and it works on top of glasses. It’s also got two huge non-hardware advantages. At $99, it’s ridiculously cheap for an AR headset, because there’s no computer or camera tech inside it. And because it uses iOS, it could take advantage of Apple’s ARKit platform, which has sparked new interest in silly-but-fun augmented reality on smartphones.
Mira co-founder Matt Stern says the company is still figuring out how much it can do with ARKit, but the best-case scenario is that Mira’s software could turn most ARKit apps into actual projected overlays. Even if that doesn’t happen, ARKit could make the printed marker unnecessary, and if people are already used to playing around with AR on their phones, they could be more interested in taking a jump into headsets as well.
Using iOS offers other advantages, too. People with iPhones or iPads can share cooperative experiences with Mira users, or take pictures that include shared virtual objects, which makes it easy to show off AR experiences. We don’t know which developers might incorporate Prism support, so it’s hard to say what you’ll have to show off, although Mira is supposed to announce a major media partnership at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Prism preorders open today, with developer editions set to ship in the fall, while consumer versions are supposed to ship in the holidays.
If augmented reality tech shrinks in the future, the Prism’s bulky phone-based design will become much less appealing. Stern says that the headset is just meant to popularize AR glasses, and in the long term, Mira wants to offer software and social capabilities. But for now, its aspirations seem refreshingly achievable compared to some other consumer AR startups — and the results are surprisingly good.