Exclusive first look at Vaunt, which uses retinal projection to put a display in your eyeball
The most important parts of Intel’s new Vaunt smart glasses are the pieces that were left out.
There is no camera to creep people out, no button to push, no gesture area to swipe, no glowing LCD screen, no weird arm floating in front of the lens, no speaker, and no microphone (for now).
From the outside, the Vaunt glasses look just like eyeglasses. When you’re wearing them, you see a stream of information on what looks like a screen — but it’s actually being projected onto your retina.
The prototypes I wore in December also felt virtually indistinguishable from regular glasses. They come in several styles, work with prescriptions, and can be worn comfortably all day. Apart from a tiny red glimmer that’s occasionally visible on the right lens, people around you might not even know you’re wearing smart glasses.
Like Google Glass did five years ago, Vaunt will launch an “early access program” for developers later this year. But Intel’s goals are different than Google’s. Instead of trying to convince us we could change our lives for a head-worn display, Intel is trying to change the head-worn display to fit our lives.
Google Glass, and the Glassholes who came with it, gave head-worn displays a bad reputation. HoloLens is aiming for a full, high-end AR experience that literally puts a Windows PC on your head. Magic Leap puts an entire computer on your hip, plus its headset is a set of goggles that look like they belong in a Vin Diesel movie.
We live in a world where our watches have LTE and our phones can turn our faces into bouncing cartoon characters in real time. You’d expect a successful pair of smart glasses to provide similar wonders. Every gadget these days has more, more, more.
With Vaunt, Intel is betting on less.
PUTTING THE “WEAR” IN WEARABLE
Take the stickers and part numbers off the Vaunt prototypes I tried this past December, and they would just look like slightly chunky, plastic-framed glasses. With a little more polish, I could see myself wearing them all the time, even if they didn’t have a display. Though I only saw two versions in Intel’s New Devices Group (NDG) San Francisco offices, Intel envisions having many different styles available when the product formally launches.
”When we look at what types of new devices are out there, [we are] really excited about head-worn [products],” says Itai Vonshak, head of products for NDG. “Head-worn products are hard because people assign a lot of attributes to putting something on their head. It means something about their personality.” That’s Vonshak’s politic way of saying other smart glasses look terrible, so his goal was to create something that has, as he puts it over and over again, “zero social cost.”
”We wanted to make sure somebody puts this on and gets value without any of the negative impact of technology on their head,” he says. “Everything from the ground up is designed to make the technology disappear.”
One of the Vaunt team’s primary design goals was to create a pair of smart glasses you could wear all day. Vaunt’s codename inside Intel was “Superlite” for a reason: they needed to weigh in under 50 grams. That’s still more than most eyeglasses by a noticeable margin, but Google Glass added an extra 33 grams on top of whatever pair you were wearing. Anything more and they’d be uncomfortable. The electronics and batteries had to be placed so they didn’t put too much weight on either your nose or your ears. They had to not just look like normal glasses, they had to feel like them.
That’s why all of the electronics in Vaunt sit inside two little modules built into the stems of the eyeglasses. More importantly, though, the electronics are located entirely up near the face of the frames so that the rest of the stems, and even the frame itself, can flex a little, just like any other regular pair of glasses. Other smart glasses have batteries that are integrated into the entire stem, “so those become very rigid and do not deform to adjust to your head size,” says Mark Eastwood, NDG’s industrial design director. “It’s very important when you look at eyewear that it deforms along its entire length to fit your head.”
TECH AT A GLANCE
Okay, but what does carefully cutting away extra technology and features so you can have normal-looking glasses actually leave you with?
At its core, Vaunt is simply a system for displaying a small heads-up style display in your peripheral vision. It can show you simple messages like directions or notifications. It works over Bluetooth with either an Android phone or an iPhone much in the same way your smartwatch does, taking commands from an app that runs in the background to control it.
One might say that this amounts to little more than a Pebble smartwatch on your face, especially because Vonshak designed Pebble’s excellent timeline interface before the company was acquired and shut down. But Intel has grand plans for the Vaunt’s tiny display.
Before we get into all that, let’s just lay down the hardware basics. On the right stem of the glasses sits a suite of electronics designed to power a very low-powered laser (technically a VCSEL). That laser shines a red, monochrome image somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 x 150 pixels onto a holographic reflector on the glasses’ right lens. The image is then reflected into the back of your eyeball, directly onto the retina. The left stem also houses electronics, so the glasses are equally weighted on both sides.
So, yeah: lasers in your eye. Don’t worry, though, says Eastwood. “It is a class one laser. It’s such low power that we don’t [need it certified],” he says, “and in the case of [Vaunt], it is so low-power that it’s at the very bottom end of a class one laser.”
The hardware here is all custom, all the way down to the silicon that powers Vaunt — which is Intel-designed, of course. “We had to integrate very, very power-efficient light sources, MEMS devices for actually painting an image,” says Jerry Bautista, the lead for the team building wearable devices at Intel’s NDG. “We use a holographic grading embedded into the lens to reflect the correct wavelengths back to your eye. The image is called retinal projection, so the image is actually ‘painted’ into the back of your retina.”
Because it’s directly shining on the back of your retina, the image it creates is always in focus. It also means that the display works equally well on prescription glasses as it does on non-prescription lenses.
In addition to the VCSEL and all the associated chips needed to power it, the Vaunt includes Bluetooth to communicate with your phone. It also has an app processor (more on apps in a bit) and some other sensors. Notably, it includes an accelerometer and a compass so it can detect some basic head gestures and know what direction you’re looking. The prototypes I used didn’t have a microphone, but future models may have one so it can be used with an intelligent assistant like Alexa.
LOOKING AT VAUNT
In order to properly use the system, Vaunt needs to be tailored to your face. That involved a pretty quick and simple procedure: measuring my pupillary distance. It’s a standard process that anybody who has eyeglasses will be familiar with, and it’s essential for the display to appear in the right spot in your field of vision. Once that was measured, a software engineer programmed my measurements into a pair of prototype glasses, and I put them on.
Using a Vaunt display is unlike anything else I’ve tried. It projects a rectangle of red text and icons down in the lower right of your visual field. But when I wasn’t glancing down in that direction, the display wasn’t there. My first thought was that the frames were misaligned.
Turns out: that’s a feature, not a bug. The Vaunt display is meant to be nonintrusive. It’s there when you want it, and completely gone when you don’t. Without a speaker or vibrate mode to notify you, I couldn’t help but wonder if that would mean a bunch of missed information.
Not so, according to Intel’s engineers. Your eyes are very rarely just sitting still. They roam around and see things in their peripheral vision all the time, your brain just doesn’t bother to process and include all that information in your focus. But should there be newinformation over there, you’d be likely to notice it.
The unit I saw was simply running through a demo loop of potential notifications and information you might see: walking directions, an incoming call notification. There aren’t any beeps or vibrations when the display switches or a notification comes in, but you do notice when it happens because the movement is noticeable in your peripheral vision. Sort of like the T. rex in Jurrasic Park, it’s easy to ignore stuff when it’s still, but your eye keys into movement.
”We didn’t want the notification to appear directly in your line of sight,” says Eastwood. “We have it about 15 degrees below your relaxed line of sight. … An LED display that’s always in your peripheral vision is too invasive. … this little flickering light. The beauty of this system is that if you choose not to look at it, it disappears. It is truly gone.”
The display should work both indoors and outside, but I wasn’t able it test it in sunlight. Importantly, it should also last a full day. Vonshak tells me they’re targeting at least 18 hours of battery life. (Of course, when the battery runs out, they’ll still work as, you know, regular glasses.) You should only have to plug them in at night and not have to charge them up during the day.
It was fascinating how quickly I got used to having that little display down there — even though it was just running through a loop of pre-canned content. It became natural within less than an hour to glance over at it to make it appear, or ignore it and focus on the person I was speaking with.
That other person, by the way, would have to be paying fairly close attention to have any idea whether I was looking at the display or not. In fact, beyond a faint red shimmer on the lens itself at very specific angles, nobody could even tell there was a display there at all.
When you look at your phone or even your smartwatch in a conversation, it’s a clear social indicator that your mind is somewhere else. What will that conversation be like if the person you’re speaking to has no way of knowing that you’re checking your latest Instagram comment?
”So I’m talking to you right now and you feel like you mean so much,” says Ronen Soffer, general manager for software products at NDG, “but I’m actually playing a trivia game right now.” (He wasn’t actually doing that, to be clear.) But after a day of playing around with the Vaunt prototypes, I completely believe that sort of thing is not just possible soon, but probably inevitable. Intel is thinking about those implications, too. Soffer wryly jokes: “You can ignore people more efficiently that way.”
EYES ON THE PLATFORM
Of course, really interesting new display hardware isn’t much without software, and Intel isn’t ready to share too many details about software yet.
But NDG’s executives are happy to talk about the obvious stuff: it will offload most of the work to your phone, just like a smartwatch or even a Fitbit does. It will support some apps, it will work with both iPhones and Android phones, and there will be some integration with voice assistants at some point.
Vonshak was also especially clear about another point: the goal is to do more than just blast notifications into your eyeball. Instead, Intel aims to offer ambient, contextual information when you need it. But since they couldn’t get into specifics just yet, all of the examples were very hypothetical. “You’re in the kitchen, you’re cooking. You can just go ‘Alexa, I need that recipe for cookies,’ and bam, it appears in your glasses,” Vonshak says.
How will you actually interact with Vaunt? That’s also a little unclear. Sometimes the hypotheticals involved voice. Other times it seemed like very subtle head gestures — tracked by the accelerometer — would be key. And in other ways, it seemed like you’re not supposed to interact with it at all, but instead, just trust the AI to show you what you need to know in the moment. One example I heard was getting relevant information about the person who’s calling you (a birthday or a reminder) while you’re on the phone with them.
Whatever the final interaction model will be, it will be subtle and you shouldn’t expect to be doing a lot of pressing and swiping and tapping. “We really believe that it can’t have any social cost,” Vonshak insists again. “So if it’s weird, if you look geeky, if you’re tapping and fiddling — then we’ve lost.”
One notable possibility: since Vaunt just uses Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low Energy, there’s no technical reason you couldn’t create a dead simple remote controller for it, say, on your smartwatch — or maybe even on your clothing. I can’t help but note that one of the places where Levi’s and Google developed Project Jacquard is literally right next door to NDG’s offices.
Vonshak also describes scenarios that are more complex, like walking down the street and looking left or right and seeing restaurant information from Yelp pop up as you look at a restaurant. Your phone knows your location, your glasses know which way you’re looking, so the data is all out there to create that sort of feature. Somebody just has to put it all together.
But whether Intel can be that somebody is an entirely different question — one that Intel will very much have to answer with clarity and confidence when it’s ready to talk more about the software. The sort of contextual, ambient, useful information envisioned here sounds quite a lot like what Google promised with Google Now a few years ago… and then failed to really deliver on. If Google — with its integrated ecosystem and gobs of personal information — couldn’t deliver on that vision, how could a third-party product from Intel do it?
I didn’t get an answer to that question, except, well, to not assume that Intel is trying to do that exact thing. “Listen, sometimes a better way to succeed is to make the problem smaller,” says Soffer. Intel’s AI for figuring out what to show you is “focused on certain types of moments, and we’ve been developing this technology for five or six years now to focus on those wearable, out-and-about moments.”
He suggests Vaunt would do a better job of, say, showing you your flight information when your hands are full, carrying your luggage through the airport, or showing you your shopping list when you’re pushing the cart along. “You are not going to be addicted to this because you’re also looking at your PC. You are not going to get addicted to this because you’re on the train and you’re going through your Facebook [on your phone],” Soffer says.
Vaunt isn’t meant to replace other screens, but to become a new kind of display that is useful in ways that other screens aren’t. “These will hook you to the value they bring when they are the optimal screen because of what they provide you. Because of how they can win over those constraints that other ‘heavier’ screens can’t, [because] they ask you for too much.”
Soffer’s vision makes Vaunt a kind of “in between” display, which is an interesting idea. It’s also one that nobody is really asking for. But Vonshak believes in its potential, even though elucidating precisely what that potential is right now isn’t easy. “When I saw the first smartphone, I didn’t go and say, ‘wow, ride-sharing, that’s going to happen,’” he argues. “But the fact is, ride-sharing would have never happened without smartphones. We’re excited about this because it enables new use cases for developers to come up with. […] What will happen when we bring a new type of display with new capabilities and new sensors onto your head? I think new use cases are going to happen.”
To that end, Intel is going to launch an “early access program” this year, so that developers can start experimenting with those emergent behaviors. That sounds similar to the Google Glass “Explorer Program,” but Intel obviously hopes these glasses won’t cause the same kind of blowback Glass did.
What will those developers actually be creating? Well, apps, of course. They’ll presumably mostly live on the phone, but they can also run in some way on the Vaunt itself. (Disclosure: my wife works on the VR app store program at Oculus.)
Working on LG’s webOS TVs, I suspect Vonshak learned the importance of a new trick: directly streaming content from the internet to a device. Just as a Google Cast-enabled TV is just an endpoint for any streaming video, perhaps Vaunt is just an endpoint where cloud apps can stream information.
I asked about all this, and since Vaunt isn’t quite ready to launch, Vonshak said that “we’ll talk about all that at a later date,” but that “it really is built as an open platform.” He adds, “It was built from the ground up to be a mobile platform that accesses the internet. And a wearable device gets really powerful when it changes the way you access the internet.”
FOCUS ON THE FUTURE
News of the Vaunt first broke last week with Bloomberg’s scoop that said, “Intel plans to sell a majority stake in its augmented reality business.” Intel wouldn’t comment on Bloomberg’s story to me, but I think the key line from the story is: “Intel intends to attract investors who can contribute to the business with strong sales channels, industry or design expertise, rather than financial backers.”
That line jibes with what sources tell me — that Intel isn’t so much looking to sell off NDG whole cloth, but instead find a partner to help bring this thing to retail. It also jibes with what Bautista told me back in December. “It is very unlikely that Intel will take it to market because we typically don’t do that. Our core business [is] we work the partners, we work with others to do that,” Bautista says. “With these glasses, we’re working with key ecosystem hardware providers — whether they’re frames or lenses and things like that. Because we believe there’s a whole channel to people who wear glasses that’s already there.”
Intel has a reputation for showing off ideas that never turn into real products. It comes up with a cool concept, proves out the technology, then hopes to convince others to take that idea and turn it into a real product. CEO Brian Krzanich comes on a CES stage, talks about a charging bowl (or hey, smart eyeglasses!), and then we wait to see if they’ll come to market. Often (maybe even usually), they don’t.
I think the intention with Vaunt is a little different from Intel’s usual playbook. For one thing, Bloomberg’s report confirms that Intel is looking for partners with “strong sales channels … rather than financial backers.” For another, Bautista and I spoke a bit about how the sales channels for eyeglasses work now back in December.
”There’s something on the order of 2.5 billion people that require corrective lenses,” he says. “They get their glasses from somewhere. Sixty percent of them come from eye care providers. … We would say these glasses belong in those kinds of channels. People are going to buy them like they buy their glasses today.”
It makes sense to sell eyeglasses in eyeglasses stores. Not just because that’s a pre-existing sales channel, but also because you’ll need to have Vaunt glasses adjusted to your pupillary distance. Intel, despite its close relationship with Oakley, certainly doesn’t have direct experience in those channels.
I don’t know if there’s a done-deal partnership to take these things to market. I certainly don’t know if Intel has a plan for either challenging or partnering with Luxottica, which has a massive and powerful monopoly over eyeglasses of all kinds in many regions of the world. Sources say the most likely scenario is a spun-out startup company will take Vaunt to market, backed by both Intel and whomever it partners with.
Whoever does eventually try to sell Vaunt to real consumers is going to face another challenge at least as powerful as the Luxottica monopoly: ecosystems. In his time at Pebble, Vonshak himself saw what happens to a wearable device that doesn’t have the deep OS access it needs to truly work well. (Reminder: it gets sold off for parts.) Since it’s not made by Apple or Google, Vaunt is going to need to find a way to succeed where other third-party wearables could not.
That’s on top of convincing people that it’s normal to wear smart glasses and that Vaunt provides enough value to justify whatever its price will be. Unlike Magic Leap or HoloLens, Vaunt looks and feels normal. But it also does way less than those devices. “Less is more” is a wonderful theory. We won’t be able to see if it’s also a great business model for some time.
Until then, what I can tell you is that I found the experience of trying Vaunt to be much more compelling than the overly techy cyborg AR glasses I tried at CES last month. Wearable devices need to fit into our lives before they can change them.
Vaunt is the first pair of smart eyeglasses I’ve tried that doesn’t look ridiculous. They’ve proven to me that it’s possible to make a kind of AR device that I’d actually want to wear every day. Now we just need to see what Intel is going to actually do with all that possibility.
Video by Felicia Shivakumar, Vjeran Pavic, Tyler Pina, and Garret Beard