When Oculus VR first unveiled its semi-eponymous Rift device, it took the enthusiastic support of people like John Carmack and Gabe Newell for anybody to really take notice. 3D displays have tended to evoke little more than memories of E3′s now defunct Kentia Hall, the dumping ground for failed technologies and half-baked concepts. Still, the past year’s steady rise in support for Oculus has greased the wheels for competitors looking to enter the market or court investment capital from hedge funds and Kickstarter technophiles. Oculus is now all but synonymous with 3D wearable displays, though, so anyone looking to capitalize on that company’s success had better have a way of powerfully differentiating themselves.
Enter Avegant, which came out of hiding today to unveil a prototype of the Glyph. Taking a page out of Oculus’ horrible naming handbook, the Avegant Glyph also sounds like a video-game franchise or multi-billion dollar ICBM targeting software. Unlike Oculus, however, Glyph doesn’t feature any display device at all — with Glyph, the only place the image ever really exists is in your mind. The technology is called Virtual Retinal Display (VRD), and it uses a projector which sends its image directly onto the retina, in much the same way that a CRT television projects a picture onto the glass of the screen. Here, though, there is no slab of glass to absorb and re-emit light into the real world; the only place Glyph’s VRD images ever exist is inside the eye of the user.
In this way, VRD is really closer to augmented reality (AR) than a traditional display, as images are layered over the real world, edited into the larger pattern of light entering your eye from the scene as a whole. Unlike “true” VR displays like Oculus Rift, Glyph will only fill a portion of your vision with its picture. A glance down at your keyboard will still work, as will a glance over to the side at a friend’s face; Glyph is meant to work with the real world, not to completely obscure it. This also makes it more useful for integration into real life — for instance, as “remote presence” robots come to prominence among executives, it will be important to be able to see what the robot sees without losing orientation in the real world. Neither the Rift nor Google’s Glass can fulfill both those goals, at present.
Since its picture only exists for you, looking away from the Glyph display means the image fundamentally doesn’t exist. That’s one reason VRD has received little attention from mainstream display manufacturers: in VRD, every observer needs their own projector, but most displays are still sold for communal use. It wasn’t until computing, and to a lesser extent media, became such a pervasive and private affair that VRD began to make sense for display. Suddenly, its greatest limitation became a virtue: a VRD image is totally private, and cannot (right now) be viewed by anyone but the intended observer.
Glyph has the general form factor of a set of high-quality headphones, and delivers audio quality to match. With 40mm drivers, Avegant wants to keep the unit to looking like a respectable set of hi-fi cans, rather than like some sort of Cyberman version of a face-hugger. Users should expect an extremely clear sound with low distortion and some respectable (but not mind-blowing) bass boost. By all reports, the phones are more than good enough to justify using Glyph on their own.
But not, perhaps, buying Glyph. At a projected $ 500 price point, the device will ultimately sink or swim on the merits of its display. A disappointing three-hour battery life while displaying images will bring down utility on flights and other leisure times. This is doubly disappointing since one of the main advantages of VRD is that it projects only as much light as is needed by the eye, and thus has the ability to be far more energy efficient than normal displays. To be fair, Oculus Rift can’t survive on batteries at all, so Glyph’s short tether is still an improvement. Battery life for pure audio is still unknown.
Glyph is really a portable media center. This isn’t meant to immerse players in a frantic Quake deathmatch, as Oculus is, nor is it designed for everyday functionality like Glass. Rather, it is an intermediate solution for an intermediate audience. Avegant wants to change the way we view media, at least by ourselves. When their Kickstarter campaign launches sometime in early 2014, you’ll have a chance to decide for yourself whether or not they’ve succeeded.