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I’m watching a jellyfish pump past me lazily, its movement interrupting the twinkling of underwater particles, when a sea turtle suddenly swims my way and starts munching on the jellyfish’s tentacles.

I know that I’m actually watching this scene unfold in 3-D on a prototype of an entertainment headset called the Glyph, which fits over my eyes like a giant, awkward pair of electronics-filled glasses and projects images directly onto my retinas, showing the equivalent to an 80-inch TV about eight feet away, but the image in front of my face feels real enough that I cry out, “Oh, no, don’t eat that! That’s not going to taste good!”

The world outside my undersea environment is less dramatic: I’m sitting in the sparse office of Avegant, the startup that began building the Glyph a little more than a year ago. The device can be used to watch 3-D and 2-D videos, play video games, and listen to music. Avegant also plans to include head-tracking capabilities in future versions so that the Glyph can be used for 360-degree immersive experiences.

Nearly 1,500 people have committed $499 or more to buy the device through Avegant’s Kickstarter campaign, which has raised over three times its $250,000 goal. The company plans to deliver the gadget to backers in December, and then start selling it generally.

So what makes the Glyph special? Avegant says it’s the headset’s image projection method, which reflects light onto each retina through a series of lenses and tiny mirrors and makes for sharper, easier-to-watch images than using a screen, as many competing products like Oculus Rift do. Its ability to mimic depth certainly makes it particularly good at showing natural-looking 3-D content.  

When I visit Avegant’s Mountain View, California, office to try out the device, I expect to be unimpressed; I’m skeptical of the Glyph’s utility and I’ve never seen a 3-D demo that really wowed me. But this time was different. There are two headsets on the table when I walk into Avegant’s conference room—an older prototype with its guts exposed and no headphones, and a newer one that looks like a giant pair of headphones and is a lot closer to what you’ll probably see when the Glyph hits store shelves.

Avegant’s chief operating officer and chief software officer, Yobie Benjamin, helps me put on and adjust the older prototype, which has flimsy plastic arms and had to be held onto my head. Both prototypes are plugged into a gray box about the size of a toaster—a battery, I’m told, which in the next version of the Glyph will be housed in the ear cans and frame and provide three hours of video-watching or game-playing.

I first watch an action scene ripped from a 3-D Blu-ray of the movie Avatar, which plays from a connected laptop (the Glyph can connect to any media player with an HDMI input, so you can use it with many smartphones, laptops, and tablets). With the Glyph on, I see what appears to be a large, bright screen in front of my face, with a black frame around it, and I can gaze above and below at slivers of the outside world. The Na’vi appear to fly around in front of my face, yet I don’t sense the delays, screwy coloring, or image doubling that I’ve noticed when viewing 3-D content in the past. There are some pixelated shots, but I’m told those are glitches in the Avatar file, not the device.

The undersea video, which I watch next, is similarly captivating, with clown fish swimming about and bright pink coral reflecting light in different directions. The aforementioned encounter between the turtle and jellyfish looks vivid and bright.

The Glyph enables this by emitting light from a low-power LED, which is reflected by an array of two million tiny mirrors onto a lens system and then projected to the back of your retinas. This seems to make for a much more comfortable viewing experience. I would happily watch a whole movie like this if time permitted.

I’m also surprised to learn that I can wear the Glyph without my glasses, since I can adjust the distance between each pupil and focus each eye individually. Once I do this, I have a big, crisp image in front of me. I’m floored to see the images in front of me quite clearly without my specs, which I normally wear for pretty much everything.

The display technology and glasses-free features are even more enjoyable on a much more finished prototype I try out next, which Benjamin calls the “form factor alpha.” This one has integrated noise-canceling headphones and can flip down over the eyes or be worn over the head like a regular pair of headphones.

I check out a Hunger Games clip from Netflix streaming via a Nexus 5 smartphone, which looks and sounds excellent. With the noise-canceling headphones and gray palette of the movie looming right before my eyes, I feel divorced from the world around me, even though it’s just a regular 2-D movie. A dial on one of the ears lets me adjust the volume, and while a cord protrudes from each earpiece (there will be one on the final version of the Glyph), they’re not in the way.

A racing game is even more fun. I have to control the game by moving the smartphone around, but an intentional gap between the Glyph and my face makes it easy to look back and forth between the two, if necessary. It feels like I’m much more part of the action than just playing a game on a smartphone or with a screen and a controller.

Throughout the experience, the biggest problem I have with the Glyph is that it’s too heavy to stay on my admittedly small head without me physically holding it in place. When playing the racing game, for instance, Benjamin has to hold the prototype on my head so I can keep my hands on the controls. Benjamin says it’s about 20 ounces right now, and will slim down to 14 for the next version of the device. That will still be fairly weighty, but with a head strap it could work.

Presumably, slimming it down will also help with its appearance. It currently looks like an oversized pair of Beats headphones, and I felt like Robocop with the Glyph on my face. On a long flight, I might not mind, but I’d have a hard time convincing myself to wear it on public transportation. Even if Avegant can lighten up the Glyph significantly, improve its appearance, and successfully introduce head-tracking to enable virtual reality experiences, it still has to convince consumers that it’s worth paying $499 for. This will be a lot harder than any of the technical or stylistic challenges the company faces.

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Credit: Photographs courtesy of Avegant and Yobie Benjamin

Tagged: Computing, Communications, Web, Mobile, mobile, 3-D, virtual reality, Oculus Rift, headset

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