If you have kids or grandkids, you hear the term “screen time” an awful lot. How much is too much? Is reading a book on an iPad bad, or maybe a bit better than watching YouTube videos on dad’s phone?
The tech industry has been pretty successful at selling us all kinds of screens, from laptops to 60-inch TVs to smartphones to e-readers to Apple Watches. And each successive wave of technology is hyped at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which opens on Tuesday.
But there are still so many minutes of the day that haven’t yet been colonized by screen time: your morning jog, a no-laptops meeting or class, a ski run, a weekend home improvement project. The tech industry believes that “augmented reality” is the answer: devices to display digital information in your field of view, using glasses or visors. Essentially, “screen time” anywhere you look.
The highest-profile augmented reality product to date was Google’s ill-fated Glass product, released five years ago at a price of $1,500. Google tried to flood the Internet with photos of attractive models wearing Glass, but it was a nerdy, unfashionable product, and the ability to get navigation guidance or take a picture by talking to your eyewear wasn’t enough to persuade people to buy it. (Google does still sell Glass, but it’s used mainly in environments like factories, where having instant access to assembly diagrams can be extremely valuable.)
Other tech giants like Microsoft and Apple are investing heavily in augmented reality, and startups like Meta, Daqri, and Magic Leap have collectively raised more than $2 billion for their own product development efforts. All are fantasizing about creating the IBM PC or Apple iPhone of augmented reality: a breakthrough device that can perform a thousand different tasks, from guiding you to the least-crowded ski trails on the mountain to walking you through the steps of replacing a storm door.
But a little-known Westborough company, Kopin Corp., is taking a different approach to augmented reality. AR is a field that Kopin has been working in since 1991, incredibly — just one year after a Boeing researcher coined the term “augmented reality.”
Kopin’s philosophy about what will actually succeed in AR in 2018 can be summed up in five words: “Don’t try to be everything.” That’s how Kopin chief executive John Fan describes it. The mistake that Google made with Glass was that the company was “too ambitious,” Fan says. “They tried to get the whole smartphone on the head.” (Kopin, which makes tiny digital displays, has been a supplier of components to Google for that product line.)
So the product that Kopin will be touting next week in Las Vegas is a pair of “smart glasses” called Solos designed for serious cyclists. They’ll cost less than $500 and will pair with a smartphone to help riders monitor their performance, set goals, communicate with others in their group, and get turn-by-turn directions for a particular route. A team of about 25 people within Kopin have worked on Solos, according to Stuart Nixdorff, a senior vice president at the company who oversees the project.
What’s being unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show is Version 2.0 of Solos. Nixdorff says the initial iteration of the product was sold to about 1,000 “early adopters” of new technology on the funding sites Kickstarter and Indiegogo. And Kopin worked closely with the team from USA Cycling as it trained for the 2016 Summer Olympics, testing out prototypes of Solos. That gives the company a nice marketing hook: Using the smart glasses helped the team, and one of its members, take medals home from Rio.
“The idea of non-intrusiveness was key,” says Ernesto Martinez-Villalpando, director of sports performance wearables at Kopin. “You don’t want the technology to distract the user from cycling and performing.”
Nixdorff estimates that there’s a global market of about 1 million customers for the Solos product — cyclists and runners serious enough to want to have data about their heart rate and pace displayed in their field of view. (Nixdorff’s expectation is that a product that’s a hit with athletes will eventually find other uses, and millions more customers.) But Kopin won’t have the field to itself; competitors like Recon Instruments, Garmin, and Everysight also sell augmented reality products for $400 to $500, and target serious athletes.
As with many technologies, Boston has been on the vanguard of augmented reality for decades — since at least the 1960s, when a Harvard professor named Ivan Sutherland built an early demonstration system that was dubbed the “Sword of Damocles.” Kopin itself attracted an early grant from the Department of Defense in 1991 to create helmet-mounted displays for soldiers, and in 2002, I saw demos from a startup called MicroOptical, which envisioned everyone from anesthesiologists to utility repair workers to deep sea divers using augmented reality displays.
Mark Spitzer was the founder of MicroOptical; before that, he worked for Kopin, and after MicroOptical company folded, he was hired by Google as part of the team that designed Glass. For a couple of decades now, people have been trying to create a Swiss Army knife product that could do everything, Spitzer says. And that may have been the wrong approach.
“For 15 or 20 years, we’ve been talking about the ideal set of AR glasses,” Spitzer says. “They’ll be light and comfortable, and they’ll do all these things, but you won’t be able to tell it’s not normal glasses. Well, that is very hard to make.” But a set of glasses designed for one specific purpose — like upgrading your triathlon training routine — “is the way to go right now,” says Spitzer, now a consultant based in Sharon. “You know what the product is supposed to do, so you can optimize for that. You can make a product that people will buy, learn some things, make then next product.”
Few companies have been pushing rocks uphill as long as Kopin when it comes to augmented reality. And few people have been as committed to the idea of digital displays that you wear than Kopin’s ever-optimistic founder, John Fan.
“Solos,” he predicts, “may be the tipping point.”Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.