Startup's gesture-based AR glasses closer to Minority Report than Google Glass

25 Aug 2015 by LIAT CLARK

A San Francisco startup is challenging Google Glass with an Android-based glasses platform that appears to have more in common withMinority Report-style visions of the future than the tech giant's offering.

Atheer Labs, founded by Soulaiman Itani and Allen Yang, unveiled the product at the D11 conference to many a curious spectator. It claims it is delivering the first "wearable, portable 3D platform" and that platform will provide "an experience that is more immersive than a tablet, and more portable than a smartphone". 

The first major difference seems to be that while Google is -- if you can believe it -- trying to go for a subtle, unobtrusive approach with data layered on one lens, Atheer is layering in 3D images spread across both lenses, overlaying the internet on your entire field of view. A mounted camera allows the device to pick up gestures, so users can interact naturally with the world they're seeing. It means that rather than getting a few odd looks for issuing voice commands to an invisible friend (Atheer supports these too),Minority Report-style swipes of a hand will guarantee you're sitting alone at the back of the bus. But that's no matter; you can use the headset for gaming and Wi-Fi provides you with alerts related to everything from "navigation to education and health". In the demo onstage the founders showed how hovering a small cursor around your field of vision (controlled by your eyes or head position) will highlight different icons, for Twitter or maps, for example. This was all in 2D, however, and there was no 3D demo. The company repeatedly emphasises the "natural" interface, clearly seeing its intuitive gesture integration as a vast improvement on other wearables' static input processes.


The focus is on augmented reality bringing richer layers to the world, and embracing the potential that brings to the table for wearables -- namely huge profits provided by working in unison with retailers and companies. Fashion brands are keen to take advantage of the possibilities, and companies like London-based Holition are already working with big name brands to allow consumers to virtually try on watches, jewellery and even underwear.

Right now, Atheer is encouraging developers to play around with the equipment, to provide the missing link between the hardware and the real world environments -- the apps that will bridge the digital and the real. In the meantime, it says it can work with regular 2D apps.

The premise is great, and possibly closer to the vision of the future heralded by the likes of Minority Report, where everything we want can be summoned before our eyes with the swipe of an arm. Of course, Atheer might be biting off more than it can chew. People are already complaining about Google Glass-induced headaches brought on by eye strain, and Atheer's world promises to be a much more assaulting one, with both lenses working to overlay your whole field of view with data on command. According to the company's website it has countered this already with a patented retinal mapping system that helps display information without blocking vision, and another patent for "vision optimisation" reduces "double-vision, blurriness, and stabilises the user's visual experience". Other patents include one for a facial recognition algorithm and gesture-related algorithms, while it claims its "Personalised Ergonomics" patent will provide users with a natural experience for their "eyes, hands and posture as the platform learns the ideal operating conditions for each particular user". 

Visually, it's far clunkier than Google Glass and makes the latter's product seem positively stylish. But that's to be expected. It's an early prototype and the designers are attempting to jam a lot more functionality in to the headset (it's hard to call them glasses -- they're probably somewhere between an oversized pair of Ray Bans and the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality headset in looks, though there are images of Yang wearing a pair not given to journalists that look more like an optician's glasses). Reporters from the Verge and Time got to try out the product, and the response wasn't overwhelmingly positive. For one, the motion tracking relied on a hefty camera mounted on a tripod (Atheer is working on developing a version that can be mounted on the headset) and all round it looks like a rough representation of what could be, if a lot more work were put in.


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