Eyes-on with the Avegant Glyph's mesmerizing virtual retinal display
January 30, 2014
After a few days of bouncing between booths and events during CES, I was more than happy to retreat from the chaotic show floor to a quiet hotel suite to demo Avegant's innovative new headset. When the company first invited me to try out the Glyph, I expected to see another virtual reality headset like the Oculus Rift, but that did not turn out to be the case at all. Instead of entering a virtual world that appears to surround you, wearing the Glyph is more like sitting in the middle of your own private movie theater, except with a better picture.
Before strapping on the Glyph, I met up with some of the passionate people behind Avegant, including CTO/Co-founder Allan Evans, who originally developed the display technology for military purposes, CEO/Co-founder Edward Tang, COO Yobie Benjamin, and Head of Marketing and Product Strategy Grant Martin, who were all more than happy to discuss the new headset, and with good reason.
Unlike most headset displays that are built around a small digital screen, the Glyph creates an image by reflecting a low-powered color LED onto an array of two million tiny mirrors. The micromirrors shape the light into a two-dimensional image, which is then beamed straight onto the wearer's retina – hence why they're referring to it as a "virtual retinal display." Since you aren't looking directly at the light source, the image comes off as more true-to-life and, according to the designers, reduces eye fatigue.
The team originally started out with a proof-of-concept prototype that was about the size of a tabletop, but were able to shrink it down in less than a year to a retinal display fitted into a simple set of glasses. They quickly realized however that this setup still required the wearer to use another device for audio, like most visual headsets on the market. The most recent model that I was able to test out is designed to switch from a standalone pair of headphones to its display mode by lowering the headband over your eyes and sliding it towards you.
Since the alpha prototype is still quite fragile though, Tang put the headband/visor down for me before fitting it over my head. Once it was in place, the two lenses' positioning could to be adjusted using a set of knobs on the top and bottom, which control the space between them and the focus. The knobs can be locked into place afterwards to avoid any changes when it's packed away, and since the diopters can be adjusted for individual users, people with glasses won't need to wear them when using the Glyph.
It took a few tweaks to get the lenses in the right place so I could see the whole screen. For the first couple minutes of a video, I ended up watching it with the corners of the image cut off and blurry. After nudging the knobs a little more however, I was able to see the total 45-degree span of the picture. The right headphone cup also had a scroll wheel to set the volume.
Given the technology involved, I expected the image would look pretty sharp, but I wasn't prepared for just how sharp it was. It's basically like having a crystal clear HD screen right in front of your face, but without a hint of pixelation. After Tang queued up a 3D underwater documentary for me to watch, I might as well have been in the ocean myself, with jellyfish and sea turtles appearing to float inches in front of me. The design team has compared the sensation to sitting in the middle of an empty, darkened movie theater, and I'm inclined to agree. It is simply amazing to see for the first time, which may explain why I look a little slack-jawed in the pictures Tang took of me wearing it.
Though the crisp display is certainly the most appealing aspect of the Glyph, that doesn't mean the designers have ignored the audio portion – far from it, in fact. "Because these are headphone replacements, they have to sound like damn good headphones," says Tang, "So we spent a lot of time designing the audio cavity to develop the right frequency response and signature sound that we have."
From what I heard, it sounds like they succeeded. Combining the impressive visuals with the noise-canceling headphones piping in some high-quality audio makes for an incredibly immersive experience.
Another major feature that distinguishes the Glyph from VR goggles like the Rift is that your eyes aren't completely covered when wearing it, and that's a good thing. With the headset resting on the bridge of my nose, I was still able to see everything below my cheekbones in my field of view. Some Rift users have noted that a fully-encompassing set of goggles can leave you completely oblivious to what's happening in the room around you, but with the Glyph, I felt completely aware of my surroundings. By just casting my eyes downward, I could check my phone, pick up a drink or snack, and see what the other people around me were doing. All I had to do then was look up, and I was back in the movie theater. According to the developers, this was a conscious decision on their part to ensure the Glyph could be used just as easily at a bus stop as in your own home.
This first video was played through an HDMI connection on a laptop, but the Glyph is just as capable of streaming content from mobile devices, while still using the same control box and a single cable. To demonstrate this, Tang connected the headset to his own iPhone and brought up his music playlist. From there, I could pick a song to listen to and then browse the internet, read an e-book, or view photos through the display. This is where you can really see the detail in the VRD, as the text was as easy to read as on a high-end tablet.
He also showed the beginning of the movie Life of Pi, which is a montage of various animals inside a zoo. Once again, the image appeared incredibly crisp and smooth. I could literally count the hairs on each animal's back as it appeared in the frame, and it was all made possible from no more than a headset and some hardware that could fit in my pocket.
As with any visual technology, this begged the question of how the Glyph works with video games, so Tang next opened up Real Racing and gave me the phone to play it. With a viewpoint from inside the driver's seat, the phone acting as a steering wheel, and the booming audio, this was one of the more engrossing racing experiences I've had outside of an arcade. The whole sensation reminded me of the few opportunities I've had to play games in a home theater. To be honest, I got a little giddy inside.
Having the lower portion of my view open also came in handy here, since I could glance downward if I needed to actually use the touchscreen more precisely. Even better, the company says this technology can work just as easily with almost any modern video device, including game consoles. The next model will even include a robust head tracking system for use with first-person games and panoramic video.
Despite the Glyph's initial appearance as a competitor to the Oculus Rift, virtual reality is the one form of content the team is shying away from for now. "We think what Oculus is doing with VR is awesome, and it's great that they're bringing all these people to VR," says Tang. "We're not focused on VR today, but we're going to see how things go down the road. We can increase the field of view, but one of the things we're focused on is to give consumers an amazing experience today. So it has to work with the devices you have right now, and it better work with the content you have right now."
Brilliant experience aside, there are still a few kinks to work out. For one, it's not the most comfortable headset to wear at the moment. After having the Glyph on for several minutes, the hard plastic began to wear on the points where it pressed on my forehead and nose. Any longer, and there would have probably been some visible lines dug into my skin for awhile.
Many people have also asked the obvious question of how the lenses will stay clean if they're sitting on someone's head, where they're susceptible to hair and grease. The designers are already have a few ideas to solve this issue, as Tang explains: "We're exploring some different options right now. So anything from a second cover to special coatings to keep these clean – kind of like your smartphone doesn't leave fingerprints because it has the oleophobic coating. We're trying out a few different solutions to find the best one for the market."
Essentially, the display technology itself seems quite capable, it's just the wearable component that needs a few tweaks. But again, this was just an early prototype. The folks at Avegant are well aware of these issues and plan to iron them out before releasing the Glyph to the public.
Fortunately, they have a much more high-profile technology company, Texas Instruments, backing them up. The team members stressed that their relationship with such a major hardware supplier – one that even allowed them a spot in TI's own CES booth – gives them a huge advantage for when it comes time to begin manufacturing. "Before we set a date, before we brought our prototypes to CES, we went and validated our entire supply chain," says Evans. "We have got to be sure that if we can make a hundred of them, we can make a hundred thousand, instead of leaving people sort of in a lurch with the tease of an awesome thing."
Of the hundreds of innovative gadgets I saw first-hand at this year's CES, the Glyph was the one I wanted to take home with me the most (well, besides the 105-inch 4K TVs of course). A private movie theater-like experience that's portable and immersive, but doesn't leave you completely shut off from the rest of the world? It's the sort of device I didn't realize I wanted until I'd tried it.
If you want to experience the Glyph's virtual retinal display for yourself, Avegant is currently taking pre-orders through its Kickstarter campaign. Anyone who contributes US$499 or more will be earmarked to receive a beta model, which will feature a few ergonomic improvements, head tracking, and a much slimmer design than the version I spent some time with.
At the time of writing, the team has raised more than triple its original goal of $250,000 and is now offering the Glyph in red, green, and orange colors in addition to the original black, white, and blue offerings. If all goes smoothly, the first batch is expected to ship in December of this year.
For now though, check out Avegant's Kickstarter video below to see a bit more about how the Glyph was created.