Friday, November 25, 2011

Gentex acquires Intersense

A couple of days ago, Gentex Corporate announced that it had acquired Intersense. Gentex makes various military products including helmets, eye protection devices, aluminized fabric and helmet-mounted displays. Intersense makes various inertial trackers.

I've had the pleasure of working with Intersense over several years, where we partnered on delivering virtual reality solutions for academic and defense markets. To many of our customers, Intersense has  always been considered the 'gold standard' of tracking, which is why I find this acquisition disappointing.

The financial details of the acquisition were not published, so perhaps this is a big win for the shareholders of Intersense, but I feel the company will now take an even stronger defense focus and will thus miss the bigger consumer product opportunity.

It is ironic that the Intersense acquisition happened just a week after the Invensense IPO (INVN), which values Invensense at some $800M. 

Founded in 1996, Intersense makes professional motion sensing products. Motion sensing is becoming more and more commonplace - just look at the Wii or the iPhone. Surely, Intersense had plenty of expertise in sensors and signal processing to offer a compelling low-cost product that builds off  Intersense's professional reputation but offers a compelling price point. 

As motion tracking became more common, lower-cost solutions started to appear. For instance, Sensics offers an integrated three degree of freedom (yaw/pitch/roll) head tracker inside the zSight professional HMD. Though the performance of the embedded tracker is not as good an Intersense IC-3, for instance, we found that for many customers it was good enough and saved them the need to pay a couple of thousand dollars for an external tracker. Intersense could have probably easily offered this lower-cost tracker, but they did not. Missed opportunity, I think, both for Intersense and for the market.

Good luck to the excellent team at Intersense, in whatever market you choose to serve!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Towards socially-acceptable goggles

Holiday season is fast approaching in the US and retailers are starting to offer attractive shopping discounts. A few years ago, my wife asked me to go to a home goods store during holiday season and buy some wine glasses. It was a cold day, and my cell phone was tucked inside my jacket while I was using an earphone in the store to speaking with my wife and decide together on which wine glass set to buy. At that time, mobile earphones were such an uncommon sight that several older ladies approached me - as I had appeared to be speaking to myself - to inquire if everything was OK.

How times have changed. Using a cell phone earpiece or Bluetooth device in a shopping mall - a complete oddity just a few years back - is now completely socially acceptable.

When would it and what would it take to have wearing virtual reality goggles become socially acceptable? Today, when I meet someone at a coffee shop and take out the goggles, people start coming over from adjacent tables to take a look. That's great if you want to sell goggles, but what would need to happen so that you can wear goggles in public unnoticed?

Clearly, the definition of what is 'socially acceptable' changes over time. Purple hair color? Diamond studs for man? Body piercing? Bluetooth headsets? All of these used to be outside the norm and now hardly worth a second look.

What were the motivations of the first people that stepped out of the 'socially acceptably' domain? Using a headset is probably about utility: it is more convenient, perhaps healthier. I don't think too many people used a headset because they felt it was overly aesthetic. On the flip side, there was little actual utility in dying your hair purple. A diamond stud doesn't make you hear better, but some think it makes you look better or draw more attention.

In the case of virtual reality goggles, we'll probably have to go the utility route. If you just want a pair of cool-looking sunglasses, just go to the store and buy cool-looking sunglasses!

What will goggles need to do so that they would be widely worn? If a Bluetooth headset is an audio extension of your phone, what will the visual extension of the phone be? Is it just about reading text messages or looking at driving directions without starting at the phone? What is the killer app? Write back to let me know what you think.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Stark HUD 2020 Augmented Reality goggles

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Stark HUD augmented reality goggles. These are not real AR goggles, but rather a clever promotion for Iron Man 2. Nevertheless, the video is compelling and worth reflecting on what it is so.

1. The goggles are visually attractive and appear to be 'socially acceptable' to wear. Though the definition of socially acceptable is fluid - just a few years ago it seemed odd to walk around with a Bluetooth headset - the closer goggles look like glasses, the better.

2. Information is context sensitive. The idea of context-aware computing has been around for quite some time, and there are patent filings on it dating at least 10 years ago. However, the availability of location-based services, and development in applications that know more and more about the user (Apple's Siri is a great new example), make the goggles useful much more than just being used as a media viewer.

3. The field of view appears wide, and resolution is good enough to read.

4. There is plenty of natural interaction with the device. The video demonstrates interaction using hands and voice commands.

5. No battery or control box. Science fiction, maybe, but still cool.

Will we really need to wait until 2020 to get them?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Steve Jobs and the HMD

The Web is buzzing about iTV, Apple's HDTV and what it could look like and do. Though Apple has filed some patents related to HMDs, it does not appear that Steve Jobs left us with an HMD design.

What would an HMD designed by Steve Jobs look like? What would it do?

As a business person, I want to build successful companies, and while success can be measured in many financial metrics, one aspect of a successful company would be a company that creates an emotional attachment with its customers.

My little personal story with Apple began many years ago, when I was about 12 years old and living in Boston. I was one of these kids that stood at the corner Radio Shack stores trying to do fun stuff with their TRS-80 computers. The personal computer revolution just started. IBM had not introduced the PC yet, and I wanted a computer of my own. My family lived in an apartment building which, for a 12-year old, was fertile ground do earn money babysitting. Lots of babysitting. Once I decided I wanted an Apple (other candidates were the TRS-80, the CompuColor and perhaps some others that I don't remember), I saved every babysitting penny towards the $1200 goal of getting an Apple II. My parents opened a bank account for me and I would stand in line to deposit $12 here, $30 there, until I reached the magic number and get my Apple II. Its serial number had 4 digits and it was that older model that had a reset key on the keyboard that, while spring loaded, was too easy to press and wipe out everything. I spent hours and hours programming, playing and hacking on that computer. Many years later, my mother donated it to a local school - it was the right thing to do but I miss my old Apple II. I can't say I miss any of the numerous PCs I've went through since.

What was so good about that Apple II? I loved its design. It was open so that you could plug cards inside. It was simple to use and "it just worked" year after year after year. That allowed so many people to write cool software and so on in a vitreous cycle.

What can we learn from Apple about HMDs?

  • Design matters. Make people want to use or - in the case of HMDs - wear your product
  • Keep it simple. Plug and play. No drivers to install. No configuration to go through. "It just works".
  • Open it up so that value could be added outside your company.
  • Price matters, but you don't have to be the lowest-cost product to succeed
  • Make it simple to use content that you already own
  • Humanize the product, if possible.