Augmented reality is still an area that has yet to really show the world what it can do. Beyond apps, we've seen bits and pieces of HoloLens, Meta, Magic Leap, and so forth but nothing's quite ready for the public eye. Google Glass is the closest piece of consumer AR though it didn't take off as expected leaving developers to scratch it and head back to the enterprise drawing board.
That means there's nothing really stopping a little known company from quietly stealing all the AR thunder. Osterhout Design Group, or ODG, has been in the biz for years - almost 20 - and thanks to its CEO and founder Ralph Osterhout, it knows the tech really well.
Read this: What's in store for Google Glass 2.0
Having gained some recognition from this year's CES by showing off its R-7 AR glasses, ODG is planning on revealing even more plans on its next set of glasses during AWE in June.
In the meantime, we spoke with the CEO, vice president Nima Shams and COO Pete Jameson about where the company is headed and what the future of AR looks like with a pair of ODG smartglasses.
Why smartglasses now?
With Google Glass and Oculus Rift turning heads, ODG felt like it was time to unveil its own product thus during a Qualcomm event two years ago, where Shams says it finally "told the world" it existed, and showed off the R-6 smartglasses.
...you can have the greatest idea in the world, and if you can't make it at a price people can afford, forget it.
The company was privately held up until this year's CES investing its own money, $90 million in six years without raising outside funds. Shams says the company was able to do this because it was always developing and sending out glasses.
Read next: Everything we know so far about Magic Leap
"We were able to do this because we were always shipping product. We were shipping use cases and learning and refining - in lower quantities and slowly increasing over time."
ODG has a long history working with the US government making military grade night vision goggles and is still continuing to work with the government on various projects. It's a proud company in downtown San Francisco that employs a almost a hundred engineers and creators, with Osterhout smack dab in the middle of it all.
The man clearly knows the tech industry and has 32 years worth of ideas about augmented reality in terms of what the people want. Because of his experience, he says people have wondered why he didn't get in the game sooner. His answer? The iPhone. Or more specifically, what the iPhone meant for components.
"Until the iPhone really came out in 2007, there was no phenomenally high volume in cellular devices, or what you call a true smartphone. The more simplistic, cute very functional phones like the analog (were around), then it went digital - which Nokia did a very good job at making consumer phones - but until you got into a real smartphone with complexity, that has a lot more processing power and more memory, and everything - you didn't have an ability to have a market that would drive the component cost down.
"Take eight years ago, how much was 4GB of memory? How much would a dual-core or quad core processor cost? Oh my. You're talking big money...overall component costs wouldn't allow you to come out with a consumer product."
Until the iPhone launched, creating demand for the handset thus set off a chain of events that eventually lowered costs for the guts of the phone making it cheaper for everyone else in the industry too. This in the end, allowed Osterhout to stop thinking about creating the glasses, and start making them especially since he felt like it'd be easier for the public to buy them.
"Having a display on your head with microprocessors is not a new idea at all. The whole point is, you can have the greatest idea in the world, and if you can't make it at a price people can afford, forget it."
Still, it's taken some time for the glasses to get made and the R-7's have stayed firmly in the enterprise sector. The prices could change in the future of course, but for now the R-7's are selling on the higher end at $2,750, which is more than Glass's $1,500 but less than HoloLens' $3000.
Osterhout justifies the price by saying it's a process. The design has to be just right, and it has to have the power of a tablet - except on your face. He also says if they can really do what's promised, people will pay up.
R-7, R-8 and beyond
While not perfect, the R-7's boast a powerful spec set and the next pair (which is just a prototype right now) has an even larger field of view.
...I can tell you there are five companies you'd recognize immediately that are in that pilot stage and going to the deployment stage in the next six months.
Packed with sensors like gyroscopes, magnetometers and accelerometers, as well as the latest Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and voice-recognition systems, a 4-megapixel front-facing camera plus global navigation satellite system technology, powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor, R-7 users can do a lot with the glasses.
To top it off, each lens also features an independently driven 720p lens capable of showing content at 80 frames per second with full 3D visualization. The lenses were designed to be 80% transparent and are interchangeable with prescription lenses.
Osterhout says the glasses have seen numerous iterations while Shams says the product has come a long way in different industries though it will be some time before a consumer launch happens.
"Over time we went to government, then heavy industry, light industry, enterprise and the road map is going to lead to consumer eventually. But what we're doing is taking a very systematic approach. We're learning lessons and applying the lessons learned to a following product."
It takes time to get to every day usage on a consumer basis because there's still more refinements to make with each iteration. Additionally, Jameson says there are three phases of adoption that the product goes through and right now, most of the industry isn't quite at the last stage yet but he figures it won't be long until more and more AR smartglasses arrive on the scene.
"The first phase is what we would call alpha testing or R&D where fortune 500 companies come and universities have these labs will buy between 5-20 glasses. Applications will be put out, it's all very testing oriented.
"Then there's a pilot phase. There's an application, it's tied back into the network, there's content and now we want to go out and run a broad trial. That's anywhere from 20-200 sets of glasses in the pilot phase.
"Then you have the deployment phase where people are using it everyday and it's rolled out. The industry today is really in those first two phases. It's people getting used to the power and capability of the glasses which is why you see a lot of it in universities.
"You see smaller companies that see a niche. They get the glasses, they develop a solution and they go out with it. The majority of the business is in that development stage and pilot stage. Over the next 18 months or so, you'll see more and more deployments. We're under NDA (non-disclosure agreement) but I can tell you there are five companies you'd recognize immediately that are in that pilot stage and going to the deployment stage in the next six months."
The good intentions behind the lens
As mentioned above, Osterhout Group has already made glasses for several companies in the enterprise space who are in different stages of testing. ODG has also developed glasses for BMW in the past though they were just a prototype.
But there are other cases where the smartglasses are currently being used. ODG makes its tech open to developers by allowing Android apps to natively work thanks to Reticule OS - its own Android-based operating system that runs the glasses.
Essential read: Behind the first 360 degree livestreamed operation
Through Vital Enterprises, doctors at hospitals like Johns Hopkins and Stanford are using ODG's glasses to assist with procedures like heart surgery while the doctor behind the first live-streamed VR surgery is even looking into partnering up with ODG for a project. Other use cases include telepresence for in-flight emergencies - where crew members become the 'virtual hands' of the doctor millions of miles away.
On the consumer end, watching movies on the plane or at home, playing games and travel are all aspects ODG plans to tackle when it's ready to reveal consumer-ready glasses. Until then, it sounds like it's sticking around the enterprise arena honing the R-7's though it won't be long before the R-8's are revealed bringing us one step closer to real life, usable AR.