Google Glass is polished, I’ll give it that. From its flat design UI to the industrial-feeling Google office where I first tried it on, it’s an experience that feels beautiful and reliable.
It’s also boring. It’s a screen that floats in front of your eye. It can text, translate and take video, which is great, but there are no surprises.
The sunglasses-like augmented reality platform that Mountain View-based startup Atheer Labs announced in May doesn’t share the same polish as Google Glass. At least not yet, as it is not expected to launch to consumers until the end of next year. But it is wilder in its scope: Instead of putting information on a screen at the edge of your vision, Atheer lays it over reality in 3D. It’s an effort at true augmented reality, unlike Google Glass.
The “glasses” I tried on weren’t glasses at all, but a headset mounted on a tripod. I peered through and saw a menu — four squares, not unlike icons on an iPhone. Atheer said this is a temporary UI that will change by the end of the year. I moved my hand up and it entered my vision in front of the menu. The menu is meant to appear somewhat in front of you, so you have to reach forward to touch it.
I struggled a bit to find the right depth, but eventually was able to tap on an icon, much like I would tap on a physical object. The program that opened filled the screen with bubbles. I jabbed at each one and watched as they popped.
Other programs featured fish swimming by or a cube you could twirl with your fingers. One featured a physical newspaper that I could turn my head to scan across and read. The images were 3D or animated.
It’s still in the development stage, so it felt a bit primitive compared to a virtual reality platform like the zSpace. Co-founder and CEO Soulaiman Itani said the company is currently working with developers and will be ready to show off more real-life applications in a few months. He described some appealing future applications, such as going shopping and being able to reach out and tap a physical object to get a price check. You could also leave virtual notes hanging on the doors of restaurants for friends to find or have a virtual pet dragon that flies above you as you go about your day.
It will also play well with the internet of things.
“The whole world around us is going to be smarter,” Itani said. “There will be intelligence in every object around you. The thing that is missing is a software platform that allows people to interact naturally and get information from those sensors. If you have controllers in your shades that allow you to turn them on and off, you still have to go find the switch. It should be pointing toward it and telling it to go up. We are building this software that will enable all of this generation of devices.”
Itani said his vision is an always-on device that pushes the wearer information as they need it. But the hardware isn’t there yet. Battery constraints mean that wearable electronics like Atheer’s glasses die too fast if they are always on. Five years from now, that could change. Itani also said hardware is best left to larger companies, so Atheer is focusing on the software, which could eventually be used by a whole range of products.
For now, Atheer wants to get its glasses to people who need augmented reality, such as surgeons and industrial designers. Itani said he doesn’t see the average consumer wearing them on their commute just yet, but they could be a replacement for a tablet at home.
The name Atheer means ‘ether,'” Itani said. “The goal is to take the digital world, the virtual world that is very much a part of our lives these days, to free it from behind the screens and put it in the ether.”