Connectivity

$99 Headset Could Be Augmented Reality’s First True Chance at a Mass Market

Its success will depend mostly on the kind of content that developers create.

A startup is making a wireless, see-through augmented-reality headset powered by the iPhone that it will sell for $99—a move that may pique the interest of programmers and early adopters who are curious about mixing digital objects with the real world but don’t want to pony up for pricier headsets like Microsoft’s HoloLens.

The headset, made by Mira, is like an AR version of Samsung’s Gear VR, which gives users a virtual-reality experience when they insert one of a few Samsung smartphones. With Mira’s Prism headset, though, the phone is positioned away from your face, and images shown on its display—one for each eye, as with stereoscopic 3-D for virtual reality—reflect off a clear lens and into your eyes so you perceive virtual objects at depth in front of you.

Sensors on the iPhone allow the headset to track the rotation of your head, and an included remote control tracks hand rotation and acceleration, so it can be used as a laser gun, wand, and so on.

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Mira plans to start taking developers’ orders for the headset on Tuesday and ship it in the fall, saying the device will be generally available late this year. The Los Angeles–based company hopes developers will use the company’s software developer kit to make apps for the headset and says it is already working with some content companies planning a range of games and other software.

The company got started last year, initially building prototypes with 3-D-printed parts; lenses were cut out of a kind of wall-mounted fishbowl, found on Amazon, that matched the curvature and optical properties that the founders calculated they would need. With the fishbowl prototype, Mira was able to get a $1.5 million round of seed funding led by Sequoia Capital, which it has been using to build a finished product.

Cofounders Matt Stern and Ben Taft showed me the device recently in San Francisco. I played around with a silly outer-space demo that had me do things like turn in circles to spot and shoot evil doughnut holes floating in an imaginary galaxy, and land a tiny rocket ship on a target.

Mira is using paper targets to affix some of its virtual objects to surfaces, and by using the iPhone’s front-facing camera, you can identify these targets and pull up associated 3-D virtual objects. So if you had an app projecting a three-dimensional chess board onto a marker on a table, for instance, you could walk around it or have multiple people view it from different angles at the same time.

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The Prism headset looked extremely goofy, and I had some trouble navigating with the remote control. But the visuals looked pretty good even as I turned my head or, in the case of one virtual object that clung to the table, walked around them. And since it allows multiplayer interactions in AR via Bluetooth, it was neat to be able to play a Pac Man–like game against Taft. (Meanwhile, Stern was able to watch what we were doing from the display on his iPhone.)

Yet the world of AR and VR is still in the very early stages, so Mira is likely to struggle to fit in. Smartphone-reliant headsets like Gear VR and Google’s Daydream View VR are more popular than devices that need to be plugged in to a computer. But a total of only 2.3 million headsets—the vast majority of them for virtual reality—shipped out in the first three months of the year, according to tech market researcher IDC.

A big problem for even the biggest manufacturers is that there isn’t a ton of content—especially top-quality content—for these smartphone-based headsets, says Brian Blau, an analyst with the market research firm Gartner.

“I think that they’re going to have a tough road,” he says.

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