Google Glass gets a cheap competitor, but it may have one fatal flaw

Credit: Source: Atheer Labs

Atheer Labs, the Google Glass competitor that introduced itself earlier this year, is offering anyone the chance to buy its product through an Indiegogo campaign, after scrapping plans initial plans to use Kickstarter.

Atheer makes software that projects virtual, 3D objects in front of users via glasses and lets them naturally interact with the objects using hand gestures or voice commands. Unlike Google Glass, Atheer’s software displays a very large image, rather than a tiny box in the corner of a user’s vision. The Atheer One, the glasses it will offer to consumers via Indiegogo, has a 65 degree field of view. The company is making the glasses for now but hopes to get out of the hardware business eventually.

Atheer is a relative unknown compared to Google Glass, but it has a few things going for it. One is that its software runs on Android and so any Android app is compatible. “If an app is a 2D, regular Android app, we translate the gestures into screen touches and send those to the app,” said Soulaiman Itani, CEO of Atheer. No additional development is required for apps to work on the system, although custom made apps can take advantage of the 3D capabilities and enable more sophisticated hand gestures.

Credit: Atheer Labs
Here's what an app will look like on Atheer Labs' upcoming Google Glass competitor.

Another advantage is the price of its first offerings.

The Indiegogo campaign, which has a $100,000 goal, will give people two choices of products. One is a developer kit, which includes a test version of the glasses. For $850, contributors will get the kit in June. An extra $150 moves the ship date up to April.

As part of the same campaign, Atheer is also offering the Atheer One commercial version of the glasses designed for anyone to use. The first 100 contributors can pay just $350 for the glasses that will ship in December. Once the first 100 are sold, contributors will have to pay $500. Those options are a bargain compared to the $1,500 Google charged for Glass early adopters.

Atheer initially planned to do a Kickstarter campaign that it thought would launch earlier this week. However, it then said that Kickstarter was taking longer than expected to approve the project, so it switched to Indiegogo. Atheer declined to offer further insight into the switch, reiterating that it was anxious to launch before the holidays.

While many startups have used or tried to use crowdfunding to raise the cash required to build their hardware, Atheer says the campaign isn’t about the money. Instead, it’s about gathering information about demand, Itani said. “To the degree the [the campaign] is a success, it would tell us which markets to approach and which not. It would tell us how fast to push in certain markets versus how slowly,” he said. “We want to know what [developers] want us to do, what their priorities are, so we can improve and keep improving.”

Nonetheless, the company declined to share information about the funding it has on hand and it will surely need more than the $100,000 from the Indiegogo campaign to manufacture the glasses.

Atheer is separately working with other companies in specific vertical markets that might want to build their own products using its software, Itani said. He isn’t so focused on the general consumer market; rather he envisions products and applications that could be useful in the medical industry, for logistics, or by people working in warehouses, for instance.

Here’s the catch, and it’s a potentially big one. The Atheer glasses don’t have a battery or other key hardware components so they only work in concert with an Android phone. Users must connect the glasses to the phone with a physical wire. The developer kit glasses attach to a box that includes that necessary external hardware for developers.

Atheer made a thoughtful decision to require the physical connection to a phone, Itani said. Doing so makes the product cheaper and doesn’t require users to plug in one more device to charge at night, he said. But the main reason was because Atheer’s research shows that weight is very important in smart glasses and adding a battery makes them too heavy, he said. Paired with an Android phone, the glasses use the phone’s processor, battery, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth radio. The Atheer One weighs 70 grams.

Also, Atheer said it doesn’t envision people using its glasses all day. “What we’re creating is something you use for certain functions like playing a game, watching a movie, or working in a warehouse. You wear it, you do something, then you take it off,” he said. “We’re not aiming to be on a crash course with [Google].”

Perhaps Atheer will learn through its crowdsourcing campaign that consumers and workers, especially those in a warehouse setting, are likely to find that the wire cumbersome. Or, the campaign might serve to inspire other hardware makers to use Atheer's software to build glasses that don't need a connection to a mobile phone. In that case, Atheer could get out of the hardware business, just like it hopes to.

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