Remember Google Glass? It was pitched as a magical pair of glasses with practical access to the search engine juggernaut. The world's information right in front of you. I remember watching the Super Bowl commercial and seeing them for the first time. It was the first time the promise of Augmented Reality (AR) seemed within reach, but ultimately the technology was too expensive, looked funny, and couldn't live up to its marketing promise.
For most, including myself, this was our introduction into the possibility of AR. AR has the potential to merge the digital and physical worlds, revolutionize how people access information and interact with their surroundings in areas like shopping, education, and video games. Imagine a world in which, rather than looking at a flat blueprint, an architect can see a three-dimensional rendering of their plan. Or, if a student wants to learn about genetics, she can see a rotating double helix instead of staring at a textbook page. I'd personally love to look up Yelp reviews & photos taken at a restaurant in AR before committing to a first-time reservation.
AR is a fast-growing industry in the tech community, but with the general public it's having trouble breaking into the mainstream. Some go as far to say that with all this technology we're entering a world that will resemble George Orwell's 1984 or Blade Runner. But a company out of USC wants to put those critics, and our robot overlords, to rest.
I sat down with Kairos entrepreneurs and the co-founders of Mira, Matt Stern and Ben Taft, whose AR headset aims to bridge this divide and make AR more accessible to the everyday consumer. "We're trying to create a paradigm shift away from conventional display and rethink how we access information as well as interact with each other," says Matt Stern. This mission has caught the eyes of industry disruptors and the biggest names in venture capital. Mira is one of the first companies to emerge from the Andre Young and Jimmy Iovine Academy out of USC and has raised over $2.5M from Sequoia Capital, Greylock and other heavy hitters.
When they were designing the prototype, Matt and Ben were originally on a path to build clunky headsets like their competitors, but they soon realized the technology they wanted to create already existed in every potential user's pocket - their smartphone. To unlock an AR experience, a user just has to download the Mira app onto their smartphone and attach it to a lightweight headset. Put it on, and they're immersed in a 3D augmented reality experience. With less bells and whistles comes a lower price: the headset costs just $99, and it applies technology the consumer is already comfortable using.
From left, Mira COO Matt Stern, CPO Montana Reed, CEO Ben Taft, and CTO Evan Bovie.
One of Mira's competitors, Microsoft HoloLens, is sleek with very sophisticated tech capabilities, but is also 30x more expensive than Mira's Prism. Mira's take is more similar to that of Google Cardboard, which is the most popular headset thus far but has been criticized for offering a low-end experience. The AR challenge of crossing the chasm from "early adopters" to the "everyday consumer" is still a sizable one. Price is a huge barrier for investment, and keeps the average buyer at bay. Mira lowers the point of entry by stripping AR down to the basics, but that's not enough. "In order to create a brand that feels more "human" than "robotic", there needs to be a very strong sense of consumer empathy & understanding when introducing new technologies like this one," Ben says.
Stern goes on to identify another significant barrier to AR's adoption in mass culture. "Often, people are afraid of the technology; putting on a headset can feel jarring and uncomfortable." I agree. Who can forget the iconic photo of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg walking through a crowd of headset-wearing human drones at the Mobile World Congress? It invokes a sense of detachment on the horizon. On the other hand, the Mira team argues that AR - when done correctly - has the potential to enhance our daily life in a way that can bring us together instead of further apart.
Mira headsets have transparent screens, which means your experience is filtered through the world around you, rather than you needing to be buried in your smartphone like most current digital experiences. Just as the Nintendo Wii made gaming interactive for the whole family, Ben Taft believes this will help solve the zombie problem and keep us connected with one another.
Now with a ten-person-team behind them, the founders have had a rapid rise in the AR industry and lots of learnings. I've summarized three of them below:
Admit what you don't know, then hire to fill the gaps.
Mira has been able to onboard several employees for software development and content creation since their fundraise. The founders have gone from a scrappy team ordering $9.99 parts on Alibaba to a full fledged tech start-up. Hiring people who are older and have experience outside of their fields of expertise has led to more product innovation & stronger partnership opportunities than Mira's founders would have been able to pull off on their own. "By onboarding people with different experiences and backgrounds, you have to check yourself and face the fact that you don't know what you don't know. This sets a foundation of respect," Ben says.
Get out of your product's own vacuum (and your own head).
Just because you as the founder believe tremendously in the product you've built, this doesn't mean it will work for every prospective customer. Passion doesn't guarantee that others will instantly "get it" or that you'll be swamped with inbound requests. Staying insulated with your product's development can be problematic. Put a MVP out there to start gathering feedback, even if it's a version of the product you're slightly embarrassed by. Better yet - get somebody (anybody) to pay for that MVP. So far, Mira found success by taking a fresh look at AR by stripping down all the flash and dazzle seen in other products, down to the basics. Ben says, "If you ever hit a wall, step back - empty your mind. Don't focus on it - continuing to run into the same wall does nobody any good. Literally meditate, and come back with a fresh perspective."
Don't forget the big vision while in the day-to-day weeds.
Mira intends to go beyond their tabletop platform so entire houses can be accessed via headset. With a stripped-down concept for a reasonable price, Mira's ambitions go far beyond the individual. Now that the company has shipped its first batch to developers & released their SDK to the world, they are laying a foundation for a platform they hope the whole world will use. Vision & strategy is critical. Mira has big plans for 2018 where they intend to focus more on software now that their hardware was finalized in 2017. Sticking to their game plan is what helped the founders get venture capital funding.
Learn more about other Kairos companies and young industry disruptors with the Top 30 Emerging Companies of 2017.