I recently had dinner with Shawn Frayne, founder and CEO of Looking Glass Factory, a startup with offices in Brooklyn and Hong Kong. He’s the sort of entrepreneur who is Hell bent on changing the world or at least the Immersive Technology portion of it. It seems to me that his Looking Glass Factory just might do it.
Immersive Technology, as you know, is dominated by AR and VR right now, with all sorts of variations including MR, XR, projection based. He says that the problem is in the headsets. This in itself is not newsworthy: Just about everyone who has used a headset will agree that in current forms, the devices are overpriced, clumsy, limited in functionality and field of view and usually require navigating with handheld controllers, which kind of offsets the hands-free benefit that headsets are supposed to provide.
Shawn has no desire to build a better headset. Instead he wants to provide a 3D interactive experience through an entirely different channel and technology. His five-year-old company and its 30 employees want to replace headsets with holographic displays. We will interact with 3D objects seen by our naked eyes using the haptic technology advantages of Leap Motion technology.
I stumbled on Looking Glass at the recent AWE conference in Silicon Valley. I was visiting lots of new booths, many of them touting headsets that showed slight refinements over what I have already seen previously. I was feeling underwhelmed when I noticed a 3D rendering of a set of three-dimensional teeth illuminated and moving around on a screen nearly 50 feet away. As I approached, I could see the depth clarity and detail, but I wasn’t quite sure just what the Hell I was looking at. My only comparison point was Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ghosts, only this was a more realistic image—even if it was less entertaining.
The well-informed woman at the booth explained to me that I was looking at a holographic display box from Looking Glass Factory. It was running a third-party application of an orthodontal plate that can be used for training medical staff or to help patients understand complicated procedures. It was one of several apps being shown at the booth. The movement I was watching was caused by another booth visitor using Leap Motion.
This gave me my first “Aha Moment”, on this the third and final day of the AWE show.
I have seen lots of AR headset training demos before. Microsoft had launched HoloLens showing how Case Western was treating Anatomy. I had written about how Walmart had adapted software used for training college quarterbacks to train in-store employees.
In both cases, only one class member used the headsets. Everyone else in the room saw what that person saw on an old-fashioned 2D film screen. With Looking Glass technology, an entire class can see in 3D simultaneously. Since no one is wearing headsets, the classroom experience will be as it has always been, going back to the days of Socrates. But the learning experience would be improved by orders of magnitude: I would prefer the next recently graduated dental technician to have been trained this way before sticking some pointy instrument into my mouth.
The Looking Glass demo also had what I call Wonderment Qualities. You look at a demo of one thing, and you immediately start thinking of other ways it can be used: in this case, entertainment and communications immediately came to mind.
I was reminded of the first time I put on an AR headset back in 2015. That was a confusing experience with wires and a headset that hurt me when I kept my glasses off and blurred my vision when I put it on. I saw some cool stuff like fish swimming at the Great Barrier Reef, but it was like vying it through a mail slot. A booth attendant had to physically guide me to prevent me from bumping into objects and when I removed the headset, I felt like I had perhaps consumed to many adult beverages.
I was told, of course, that all these little glitches would go away. Everyone said they would, so a community formed that has tens of thousands of Immersive Technology members worldwide—perhaps more—we are all waiting for those problems to be resolved.
In all fairness, headsets have indeed improved and the price has come down significantly—but not enough in the opinion of just about everyone in the industry I speak with. No headset has received the marketplace success that dozens of headset makers yearn for. Much of the once avid media has wandered off to see what’s happening with robots and autonomous cars. Companies who have spent millions in R&D on Immersive have begun to shift allocations and priorities. A shakeout has begun. Last year, Meta, perhaps my favorite of all headset companies, went belly up and the world hardly noticed.
So, before I came across Looking Glass, I was aware of a certain sense of malaise in the Immersive Technology industry: It just hasn’t been growing in mainstream popularity as we insiders had hoped it would. Instead of great leaps forward in headsets it has been a game of tweaks.
When I reviewed AWE, I rated Looking Glass as my favorite exhibit. While there were other exhibitors I liked, this was the only thing that really felt awesome to me.
I wanted to know more and a couple of weeks back I met with Shawn at Betty Lou’s Seafood Grill, a locals favorite, and we had a great time, talking not just about Looking Glass, but about our lives and the future of the world as well.
Shawn grew up in Florida. When he was in high school, his folks gave him a book about holography. It would change his life path. He grew obsessed with the topic. After high school, he went on to MIT to study under Stephen Benson, co-founder of the MIT Media Lab and an expert on holography. At MIT he discovered that there was an ad hoc community of people all over the world: one of them was Alex Hornstein, also from MIT. The two met in Hong Kong and hit it off so well they decided to work together.
Alex and Shawn moved to New York City where they started Looking Glass Factory on a crowd funding campaign that netted less than $100,000. They opened shop in a renovated old Brooklyn building. Five years later, their team has grown to 30 mostly technical people and their last round, led by Brad Feld’s Foundry Group, brought total investment up to $13.8 million according to Crunchbase.
This may seem significant, but it’s only small potatoes when you look at the forces that have been showering tens of billions of dollars into AR headsets. Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Sony, Samsung, Alibaba and other elite technology powerhouses are all players, and many of the early phase players have raised far more money than users. Mindmaze and Magic Leap raised over $1 billion and Magic Leap has yet to offer a consumer product.
How can a team of 30 based in Brooklyn, step onto an enormous competitive field dominated by big, wealthy and branded players and have a chance?
It has happened before, and I’ll get back to that in just a few paragraphs. First, let me wax nostalgic for just a bit.
Looking Forward Through the Glass
When you were a kid, I hope you experienced the same joy I did when I read Alice in Wonderland, and its sequel Through the Looking Glass in which Alice enters a fantasy world through a mirror and everything happens in reverse. You approach objects by moving away from them as an example.
Looking Glass Factory has looked at the headset world and sees less Wonderland, and more Blunderland. Shawn believes holographic displays are a faster, better path to the objects. You may not have to approach the objective by walking backwards, but he argues people can get there faster by building a new channel in Immersive, than by waiting indefinitely for headsets to get sufficiently good and affordable for mass acceptance.
As Shawn sees it, headset makers have a huge head start but every headset maker is facing obstacles that holographic approaches eliminate. So far, Looking Glass appears to be going forward quickly and smoothly.
Since January, it has started shipping a line of three Looking Glass display boxes ranging in price from about $600 to $6,000. I was told that selling just on the company website they have already shipped thousands of units and revenue is rising month over month.
But, this can be a little deceiving. Shawn readily admits most of these sales have come from Research and Development departments in large tech companies and independent developers, most of whom have purchased just a few units. I remember when I first interviewed the guys at Meta and they showed me a slide of over a hundred familiar logos representing the company’s customers, when in fact it was just R&D departments who buy one or two of anything new with potential.
Shawn seemed buoyed by the feedback he has received so far and sees opportunities in health, education, science and entertainment as four promising areas.
“We are still waiting for that first killer app,” he told me. “That will change everything. That’s when our focus will move to scaling.”
More than one company has found itself in the very same position. The tales of Silicon Valley are abundant of tales of David taking on Goliath and more often than people might think, the David’s might win.
Among the most popular of these tales goes back to when IBM was the world’s most powerful tech company and there were these two California hippies both named Steve.
The Macintosh Way
Not long after IBM introduced its PC, it set a standard that made it easier for software developers. But if all the other PC makers wanted access to enterprise knowledge workers, they had to conform to the IBM PC standard. And so they did.
But then, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh back in 1984. They ignored the IBM Standard and even ran TV ads poking fun at it. They declared the new Mac as the computer for the rest of us and introduced the digital mouse which greatly reduced friction for people who were just learning how to get along with digital machines.
This is one of many stories of how a late arrival in a new market chose a new approach and absolutely disrupted the obvious leader. Achieving that in 1984 was far more difficult than it would be for Looking Glass to achieve a similar victory in say 2024 in immersive technologies.
But as Steve Jobs would say: “There’s one more thing.”
Jobs and Wozniak were part of Homebrew Computer Club, a loose-knit group of hobbyists who believed in a transformative digital future. Wozniak said he got the idea for the first Apple from Homebrew. Later, when the Mac came out the first 50, I have heard, were given to Homebrew members because Jobs believed they could influence the most passionate and knowledgeable computer professionals to recommend Mac over PC.
The idea that a social network could help achieve great success in tech probably was loosely formed at that time. I experienced the power of such movements as part of a small group of extremely diverse blog enthusiasts who would soon be called social media professionals.
A Global Holography Community
Shawn talked to me with great loyalty about a global community of 3D technology enthusiasts that is centered generally in the US and Japan, but has members all over the digital world. Shawn said he sees that community as his greatest source for new ideas, applications, code strings, emotional support and product evangelism.
He seems to believe it is a likely source of that killer app the Looking Glass so greatly needs. He may be right, but my experience also tells me that luck is often what it really takes to take a very nice app and springboard it into wildly viral success.
The fact that the headset industry trajectory is following a tepid path leads me to believe that Holographic technologies have a chance to play a very viable role in many areas. For example, retail. A Holographic display in a store could draw attention and clear shelves if done right.
I asked Shawn about the all-important issue of mobility and he appeared to be confident that Looking Glass had plans that he was not ready to share. Fair enough, but I have trouble picturing how people will move about their lives toting holographic displays: perhaps there will be a mobile app for some wearable device sometime soon I don’t know. But I have trouble envisioning a killer consumer app that lacks mobility.
My Exciting Conclusion
In 2016, I co—authored a book that predicted that by 2025, the center of our digital world will migrate from our smartphones to immersive headsets. Following the current path of development, I would guess that prediction was off by at least a decade. I’m in good company: Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook also seem to have made the same wrong prediction.
For me, what’s important here is not what technology prevails; nor do I prefer one company over another. I am on the side of the user. Immersive technologies have the potential to make our lives happier, healthier, more cost efficient, and more secure. It will improve education, entertainment and communications.
Let’s spotlight communications, for a second. At some point in the future, when you want to hear me talk about something worth talking about, you will invite me into your home or office and my chatbot avatar will sit by you. We may shake hands or hug or exchange fist bumps. When I look you in the eye you will see my eye. My smile and yours will be authentic. When I write about Looking Glass Factory, I will project the interior of it into your room and we will take a virtual tour. If you have question for me or anyone, we visit you can interrupt to ask them.
Just how this is done is interesting to me, as is whether one technological approach prevails over the other. What I care about is ultimately how the technology impacts life and work and how to prevent unwelcome consequences such as a social network that can taint free elections.
I kind of like the spunk I saw in Shawn Frayne, but I also really liked Meron Gribetz, founder of Meta. At the end of the day I am agnostic to the company and a champion of the end user.
I think the world becomes a better place and the end user has a better chance of experiencing what I described above, if Looking Glass gains the traction that it is on trajectory to experience. If nothing else, the competition with headsets should accelerate improvements and lower prices—always good for end users.
So, to paraphrase the late Steve Jobs, “Welcome Looking Glass. Seriously.”