Technology News

Has Oculus been Trumped?

By Marc Davis

 

It’s sleek, super-lightweight and has the ‘cool’ factor. That’s not up for debate. But what comes next will surely stir up some controversy.

 

More so perhaps than Facebook’s $2 billion buyout last year of Oculus VR – a start-up virtual reality (VR) headset developer for gamers. 

 

What’s contentious here are the claims of Doug Magyari, a 59-year-old serial inventor who lives light years away from Silicon Valley in low-tech Detroit. He’s developed ‘smartglasses’ that are not only considered functionally superior to Oculus’ technology; they can also easily transition from VR to augmented reality (AR).

 

“Our product’s VR and AR capabilities outperform Oculus and the rest of the competition in every important regard,” Magyari says.

“First, our viewing system provides virtually distortion-free images, with a large, fully immersive, field of view – all in a small, comfortable package. That’s an industry first. Second, our smartglasses are ideally-suited for real-world augmented reality, especially because they’re a ‘natural see-through’ viewing device. In other words, you can walk down the street or do work with AR data superimposed over your natural field of vision.”

 

It sounds almost too good to be true. So is it? Has Magyari and his team really outsmarted not just Oculus but even Zuckerberg, too? Or is he just making the type of over-optimistic promises that VR developers have become notorious for?

 

Well, he’s got the goods and is ready to prove it at the Augmented World Expo 2015 on June 08-10 in Santa Clara, California. Or so he says.

 

Sceptics should note that Magyari isn’t some eccentric, nerdy scientist tinkering away in his basement. Instead, his below-the-radar R&D company, Immy Inc., has generated enough buzz in recent years to earn a few million dollars worth of private equity backing. It’s also attracted some top VR and AR optical software engineering talent. Several of them were recruited after making a name for themselves on high-profile projects for NASA and the U.S. military.

Solving VR’s Image Problem

Magyari’s smartglasses are known as the ‘IMMY NEO’. IMMY stands for immersion. And NEO is an acronym for ‘natural eye optics’. This proprietary technology is what empowers this product to stand out – both functionally and aesthetically – from the competition.

 

For instance, the IMMY NEO is ergonomic, weighs less than four ounces, and is very comfortable to wear. Also, Magyari’s technology involves reflecting images off mirrors, rather than processing light through lenses and waveguides. This allows viewers’ eyes to remain relaxed at all times.

All of this means that the IMMY NEO is designed to be wearable for eight hours or more without any eye strain or headaches. This promises to be a big deal for gamers on an all-night bender or if it’s worn all day long for commercial or industrial uses.

 

Comfort aside, Magyari’s technology solves the ‘convergence/accommodate conflict’, he says. This means that superimposed AR images can be presented not just in 2-D (such as a text overlay), but also in 3-D – all without any eye strain. If that’s really the case, then he’s actually outdone Magic Leap, as well as Oculus.

 

As an aside, Magic Leap became a media sensation late last year when Google and several other players invested $542 million in this start-up AR developer, which creates realistic 3-D images for AR applications. But eye strain and a limited field of view are still issues for Magic Leap’s ‘digital light field’ technology, Magyari says. 

Meanwhile, Oculus’ flagship ‘Rift (DK2)’ headset has its own selling points – ones that have already made it very popular with gamers. In particular, it has an impressive wide field of view (something that only super-expensive, high-end VR headsets have offered to date) and an affordable $350 price tag for a limited-run developers’ kit.

 

On the downside, Oculus and other leading competitors are still struggling with the main drawback of their optics technologies – image distortion. This can involve blurriness, colour distortion, pixilation, the sense of ‘seeing double’ and smearing of the image. All of which can contribute to causing motion sickness and/or dizziness with VR gamers.

 

There’s also the thorny issue of eye strain, which some industry insiders say could lead to neurological health risks with long-term VR use.

The Oculus Rift DK2 'facebrick' headset.
Photo is courtesy of PCWorld.com

Furthermore, gamers are also burdened by the fact that VR headsets are typically heavy and obtrusive. For example, the Rift weighs nearly a pound. This is largely because it uses a bulky ‘facebrick’ viewer to house a smartphone screen.

 

At the very least, this makes for a really geeky appearance. But it’s the safety concerns regarding facebrick-type VR headsets’ lack of natural see-through capability that are more problematic. With headset users cut off from the outside world, this can trigger physical disorientation and/or claustrophobia.

 

In an attempt to overcome the hazards of what’s called ‘occlusion’ (an obscured view), most headsets are now equipped with an outward-facing head-mounted camera. Referred to as a ‘pass-through’ camera, it provides a live 2-D video feed of the real word that’s projected onto the viewing screen.

 

Yet Magyari feels this current type of VR technology will ultimately prove unsafe and unworkable. “How can you become truly absorbed in an immersive gaming experience if you’re worried about bumping into walls or even falling and hurting yourself? As for a pass-through camera being the solution to this problem, it isn’t! After all, you surely wouldn’t choose a 2-D video feed, instead of your own 3-D vision and the ability to control how much of the real world you can actually see.” 

 

He adds, “Safety should be every headset manufacturers’ number one concern. If something goes wrong with the headset’s video feed and you get hurt, there’ll be legions of lawyers looking to sue on your behalf.”

 

Furthermore, the Rift and other facebrick-type products will never be viable for future AR uses, Magyari adds. Instead, they’ll remain constrained to console-based applications, such as video games. 

 

Did Facebook Back the Wrong Horse?

Finally, VR is coming of age after more than two decades of letdowns and false starts. This helps explain why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is gambling big on Oculus. In fact, he envisions VR will eventually become “part of daily life for billions of people.”

 

Nonetheless, this is a strange – perhaps even whimsical – acquisition for the youthful tycoon. After all, Facebook is more focussed on being the world’s dominant collector of personal data than on strutting its stuff in the gaming industry. Hence, all the sneering indignation among gamers who claim Facebook may eventually turn VR into a creepily intrusive form of data mining.   

 

Regardless, what’s ultimately at stake is the ‘first mover’ advantage to launch the world’s first truly iconic VR/AR viewing device. Which therefore has to be highly functional, comfortable (lightweight and ergonomic), and of course affordable. Several titans of the electronics industry and a few upstart tech incubators, including Immy Inc., are all in the running.

 

Trying to get the jump on everyone, Magyari says his VR/AR smartglasses should be good-to-go within weeks as ‘engineering samples’ for a few select industrial clients. And developers’ kits for gamers should follow suit before the year’s end. 

 

So can Magyari’s IMMY NEO really blow the competition out of the water, as his audacious claims suggest? And is it far superior to Oculus’ much-hyped Rift? Also, does it also really represent a quantum leap in the evolution of price-sensitive, highly-functional, lightweight smartglasses?

 

Apparently, the answer to all these questions is an emphatic ‘yes’. This is according to Michael Blades, a senior industry analyst for aerospace and defence at the multinational research and consulting firm, Frost & Sullivan, which is headquartered in Silicon Valley. He’s tried on an earlier prototype of the IMMY NEO and was impressed.

 

“I consider the IMMY NEO to be a significant breakthrough based on both the technology involved and the anticipated low cost,” he says. “It has the potential to be a game-changer.”

 

“Side by side with the Oculus Rift, you get more immersive, more realistic capabilities with the IMMY NEO. The Rift is more geared to gamers, whereas the IMMY NEO has a much wider range of applications, mainly because it has both AR and see-through AR capability. This lets you use all of your senses, especially your natural vision, which makes for more realistic training environments, especially for the military.”

 

Another enthusiastic supporter of Immy Inc.’s next-generation AR/VR technology is Michael Campbell, Executive President of CAD at PTC, one of the world’s leading design software companies. 

 

He concurs with Blades in suggesting that the IMMY NEO has a bright future in a wide range of industrial and commercial applications. This is where significant cost savings can be made with design prototyping. It also promises to help accelerate product development timelines.

 

“We cannot wait to get our hands on the IMMY NEO,” Campbell declares in an e-mail. “As a company, we see this product, when combined with our industry-leading product development and ‘Internet of Things’ tools, as a means to connect our customers’ physical products to their digital twin. By linking the two worlds, we believe we can substantially change the way companies design, manufacture, and service their products.”

 

In particular, VR is ideally suited to the automotive and aerospace industries, which have long been enthusiasts. This is where Magyari foresees Immy Inc. becoming the ‘go to’ provider of choice. And he has all the right connections, having already provided immersive training for the likes of Boeing, the U.S. Army and Ford.

 

Now he has plenty of blue-chip clients anxious to take delivery of his smartglasses. They include Lockheed Martin, Google, General Dynamics, Boeing, Airbus, Ford, Porsche, BMW, BAE Systems, Raytheon, John Deere, and the U.S. Armed Forces, to name a few.

 

AR is Set to Steal the Limelight

Before long, many billions of dollars of market share will be up-for-grabs in the VR sector. And the obvious advantage to this emerging industry’s frontrunners is the opportunity to earn brand loyalty with VR enthusiasts, which include big corporations.

 

However, VR will always be held back by its limited uses, which are mostly for indoors. But this couldn’t be further from the truth for AR. (For the sake of clarity, VR entails total immersion in a digital, computer-generated world. In comparison, AR overlays digital information on top of things you see in the real world.)

 

Soon enough AR will outshine the revitalized VR market, while also eclipsing it in sales, according to Tim Merel. He’s the managing director of the Silicon Valley-based technology market research and consulting firm Digi-Capital.

 

At $120 billion a year by 2020, sales of AR-enabled technologies are expected to be four times the size of VR’s projected $30 billion market, Merel forecasts. Nonetheless, this still translates into a booming VR sector that promises to be many multiples of its current size.

 

Magyari also sees the big picture potential for AR. This is why he believes sales of the IMMY NEO will outperform all the facebrick-type headsets, including the Oculus Rift, which have no natural see-through capability.

 

A vintage car restorer in his spare time, Magyari can’t help but enthuse over how AR could make life so much easier for anyone repairing or servicing any kind of complex mechanized machinery.“Imagine repairing an automobile engine with the IMMY NEO providing step-by-step virtual overlays in a mixed reality environment – involving both real world viewing and AR – so that the technician is sequentially guided step by step.”

 

Smartglasses: When Cool Meets Cheap

Another big competitive advantage that Magyari believes will make the IMMY NEO a success is its relatively low projected price point. This is because the IMMY NEO relies on inexpensive lensless optics technology, which emulates how we see in the real world.

 

If he’s right, then the Oculus Rift and other facebrick-type headsets are already on their way to becoming obsolete – only to be replaced by comfortable, sunglasses-like, mobile computing platforms.

 

Within several years, AR-enabled technology will offer amazing, data-rich orientational and navigational tools for all of us to benefit from, Magyari asserts. In other words, the future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades (smart ones, of course).

 

Source: The San Francisco Chronicle