Secretive Military Tech Company Announces Augmented Reality Glasses For Consumers
For the past six years, low-key Osterhout Design Group has been building heavy duty smart glasses for the military. But after seeing the kind attention heaped onto gadgets like Google Glass, the small San Francisco-based company is looking towards the consumer market and thinks it has something better to offer the world.
For less than $1,000, ODG plans on releasing a more consumer-friendly version of its glasses in 2015. The glasses can do everything its military-grade specs can do—display high-definition video, record video, lay visuals over the real world—but will be 30 percent smaller and 20 percent lighter, and they’ll look a little less awkward. The most recent version of ODG’s smart glasses, released last year, are bulkier and more rugged to fit with military equipment specification, and cost around $5,000 a piece.
ODG’s augmented reality glasses come packed with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor; Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a global navigation satellite system; and sensors for figuring out where you’re looking. The operating system ODG uses is a modified version of Android to make sure, for example, an Android update button doesn’t pop up while you’re driving down a freeway with the glasses on. Battery life is variable depending on how they’re being used but can range from an hour or two to nearly all day on a single charge.
The glasses can do pretty much anything a tablet can do. Watching a movie on the glasses is something akin to watching a high-def movie on a 65-inch TV from across the room. The glasses also track your head movement, so you can be placed into a 3D picture or video feed like you would with a pair of virtual reality goggles. When I tried out a pair of ODG’s glasses in its South of Market office, the virtual reality felt less disorienting than the Oculus Rift, which detached me too much from my surroundings–you can still see your surroundings on ODG’s glasses.
ODG thinks its glasses fall somewhere in between Google Glass and Oculus’ virtual reality headset. Said ODG vice president Nima Shams: “You can’t watch a movie or browse the Internet on Google Glass. Even developing for it, it’s not standard Android, you have to do pages methodology. And on the other end of the spectrum is Oculus. It’s immersive, you get lost, but you’re not able to see through and it’s not mobile. You need a hefty PC. ODG falls in the middle.”
ODG will be releasing its own developer kit for third-party players to start building applications for the glasses. Although ODG is expecting a developer community interested in augmented reality to start building software for it, ODG already has some experience in that area. One of its first apps was a piece of facial recognition software for military forces to scan a crowd and get alerts if there’s anyone they might interested in.
In the industrial and military space, the biggest competitor to ODG’s glasses so far has been Epson Moverio smart glasses. Epson’s glasses are designed for industrial usage and are certainly bulky enough to keep them from being used by most consumers–though the Japanese company claims it’s been getting some traction with everyday consumers.
Although the market for gadgets for your eyes is still clearly early, ODG thinks there’ll be plenty of opportunity with consumers that it will far exceed its current military contract business.
“The adoption of technology is faster in the consumer world,” said ODG executive vice president Pete Jameson. “When I sell a tool to an enterprise, it has to have a proven return on investment. The adoption is longer. With consumers, it’s about if this is cool. Investment decisions take 30 seconds.”
Gadgets for your eyes for both augmented reality and virtual reality have been getting a lot of attention the past year. Google Glass and the Oculus Rift have been on the forefront of all of this. Google Glass garnered plenty of attention, but as a consumer item, it’s fallen flat as worries about privacy and surreptitious surveillance prevailed. Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion on the pretense that virtual reality is the next big platform after mobile. Then there’s the stealth startup Magic Leap, which received $542 million from Google and Qualcomm, and looks like it includes some sort of headworn device for augmented reality.
Still, it’s hard to imagine people casually wearing these computers attached to your head around in the world. Google Glass and other augmented reality glasses seem more destined for enterprise at this point. Big companies like Boeing have already begun adopting this technology for their workforce. There’s plenty of ways this technology could used for building or fixing complex machinery. Manuals can be pulled up in front of your eyes without you having to look away and use your hands. ODG has started selling its glasses into these kinds of industrial settings recently.
“Today, we’re very focused, and have been focused, on government applications and are now expanding into enterprise and industry,” said Jameson. “This is a tool that helps change workflows and keep people safe.”
Since its founding in 1999, ODG hasn’t been a very public-facing company. ODG is primarily a technology incubation company that has managed to get by with no external funding. Up to this point, the company has relied almost entirely on military contracts, building everything from augmented reality glasses to high-tech scuba gear—the kind of gadgetry you might find in a James Bond flick.
And Microsoft paid up to $150 million for some of ODG’s wearable computing patents, TechCrunch reported earlier this year. Its eponymous founder, Ralph Osterhout, has founded 14 other companies and has even built equipment that’s appeared in at least two James Bond films.