It turns out there are at least three types of reality.
There’s standard reality, which many people are familiar with, and then there’s virtual reality, which you can inhabit by wearing a VR headset of some sort. When you put on a VR headset, the sights and sounds of the real world are blocked out completely, totally immersing you in a computer-generated experience. Movies, video games, and harder-to-define experimental experiences are available to anyone who wants to venture into a virtual world.
Escaping into virtual space is becoming increasingly popular, and sales of VR units grow every year. The manufacturers of VR headsets, led by Sony Playstation VR, Oculus Rift, and HTC, together sold around 6 million headsets last year.
But there is a third type of reality that has proved commercially elusive so far: mixed reality or augmented reality. This type of headset seeks to enhance the real world rather than block it out, and it has proved so far to be resistant to commercialization.
But an Alexander Park company, ThirdEye Gen, is betting that it has cracked the code with its X2 smart glasses. Unlike VR, which is mostly used for entertainment, ThirdEye’s device is being marketed for use in the workplace.
The ThirdEye X2 glasses are transparent like a normal pair of glasses but have the ability to project a translucent computer image onto the glass, overlaying computer images on top of the user’s field of vision. The glasses are also much lighter than a VR headset and don’t have wires attached to anything. All the computing power is in the frame of the glasses even though it weighs just six ounces.
“Eighty percent of the global workforce uses their hands while working,” says Nick Cherukuri, founder of ThirdEye. His company aims to give workers the powerful ability of using a computer without taking their hands off of a task. Suppose a technician is in the field repairing a piece of machinery and runs into a problem they can’t tackle. Instead of picking up a phone and calling for expert advice, the company could use the smart X2’s built-in camera to stream live video to a top engineer back at headquarters. The expert could give the field mechanic step-by-step instructions and even display pictures and video to them while they worked.
This same capability could allow a surgeon to consult with a colleague or an aircraft mechanic with an expert. A construction manager or architect visiting a building site could see a projection of the planned building rising out of the terrain. The possibilities are nearly endless, Cherukuri says.
Cherukuri says his company is currently having units manufactured in China with the goal of shipping them in the “tens of thousands” in the near future. He says companies like Verizon, Boeing, and Lockheed-Martin have partnered with him to test uses for the glasses. “It’s a really exciting space to be in,” he says. “We are really the established leader in augmented, mixed-reality glasses, and we’re pretty excited about where we’re going.”
Cherukuri sees smart glasses eventually replacing phones and laptops in certain situations where being hands-free is a must. In addition to business-to-business applications, augmented reality games and entertainment could be big business someday. Cherukuri says the company has about 500 software developer partners who have taken the technology in all kinds of directions. The glasses use an open source Android operating system.
“They have come up with ideas that we never envisioned. One is that you wear the glasses and you have eight different TV screens mapped out in a room,” he said. “One pretty big gaming company is trying to make a massive city gaming experience where you walk around, say New York, and you would have a dragon fly out at you from behind a skyscraper, for example.” Another is a virtual piano that appears in front of the user, who can play music like you could on a real keyboard.
He is also marketing the glasses to airlines as an alternative way for passengers to watch movies. Airlines could also do some wild things like mount cameras on the bottom of the plane so that users of AR-glasses could see through the floor. (The F-35 fighter jet helmet uses a similar system to allow the pilot to see below and around the aircraft.)
Cherukuri also sees the device being useful for visually impaired people. Its 13-megapixel camera can alter colors, zoom in on text while reading a book, or read words out loud. Many of these capabilities currently exist in smartphones, but the glasses remove the need for the user to hold a phone while trying to do something else.
The battery-powered device is controlled with a combination of voice commands and gaze tracking, where a mouse cursor moves along with the user’s head. Cherukuri says the company is considering adding hand gesture commands to future models, but the goal is to be hands-free or nearly so. He says previous augmented reality devices have come with an attached keyboard or a wired power pack, negating the advantages of mobility and hands-free operation that are the entire reason for using it in the first place.
ThirdEye currently employs 50 people, mostly engineers, and is planning to expand by hiring sales and marketing staff in the near future. It is currently located at 300 Alexander Park Drive in West Windsor, in the same building as defense contractor Banc3 Engineering. The location is not a coincidence, as the two companies are closely connected. Banc3 is a licensed reseller of the glasses, specializing in government sales.
The core team of engineers who designed the smart glasses came from the ranks of Princeton-area technology companies specializing in defense, such as SRI, and Banc3, which makes augmented reality systems for the military. Cherukuri says the team designed the glasses using lessons learned making devices such as heads-up displays for rifles. The designers have been working with heads-up displays for 20 to 30 years, he says.
ThirdEye’s competition in the smart glasses field comes from the west coast, with Google’s Google Glass smart glasses and Microsoft’s HoloLens also selling their products to businesses and the government.
Despite being a much smaller company, Cherukuri says ThirdEye has been remarkably competitive with the industry giants. ThirdEye’s product costs about $1,800, half as much as the similarly capable HoloLens and comparable to Google Glass, which only has a projector on one eye and therefore a narrower field of view. Due to the absence of Apple from the field and the relatively small efforts by Google and Microsoft, Cherukuri calls AR a “wide-open field” for development.
Cherukuri says his customers have so far been testing the glasses in pilot programs and have seen large gains in workforce efficiency, making the glasses pay for themselves in short order.
There are numerous technical obstacles that have so far prevented smart glasses from becoming widespread. In 2013 Google launched Google Glass but was met with criticism over privacy due to the inclusion of a camera in the glasses. There are also hardware challenges, although processors and cameras have vastly advanced in the last six years.
Cherukuri says one engineering challenge was how to manage heat. The smart glasses generate heat comparable to that of a smart phone but don’t have the surface area on the back of the phone to dissipate it. “You also don’t want it burning up your head,” he said.
The latest ThirdEye unit uses a system of internal vents to deal with the heat and divert it away from the person wearing the device. Battery life is another issue. Currently the X2 unit has heavy-duty batteries that last for about three hours of constant use before needing a recharge, which Cherukuri says is about the industry standard. That could be extended to an entire workday if the user only turns it on for short bursts.
ThirdEye is headquartered in an area not known as a consumer electronics hub. But there is more technical expertise in the Route 1 corridor than a casual observer might realize. Not only is Princeton University here, but defense and aerospace companies in the region foster electronics expertise. “We’ve found this is a great location,” Cherukuri says. “It’s easy to travel to, and it’s easy to build labs and stuff. It’s easier than working in a city where it’s impossible to build labs like we have here.”
Cherukuri says the company was founded two years ago and is self-funded so far. He says he is planning a Series-A funding round for investors.
Cherukuri grew up and lives in Cranbury, where his parents are engineers, and attended the Lawrenceville School. He went to college at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, graduating in 2016. While in school he helped found a VR club and founded ThirdEye while he was still a student. Some of the company’s original employees were also part of the club.
Cherukuri says he is looking for 50 to 60 more employees in the current phase of hiring. “We are trying to expand really fast,” he says. For the moment he plans to stay in the current building and not move out of the area if he outgrows it.
“There aren’t too many startups on the east coast,” he says. “We really think of ourselves as the Silicon Valley of Princeton. We have that type of mentality; we are trying to bring that type of feel here.”
ThirdEye Gen, 300 Alexander Park, Suite 206, Princeton 08540. 609-423-1660. Nick Cherukuri, founder. www.thirdeyegen.com.