A year ago, Bay area company Avegant (maker of a personal cinema system) announced that they were developing an Augmented Reality headset using their light field technology. But in February they replaced CEO Joerg Tewes with company founder Ed Tang. And now they have laid off 30 of their 50 workers.
Tang has said that despite the downsizing, the company remains committed to developing an AR headset. Avergant’s AR division is in direct competition with Microsoft’s HoloLens and Magic Leap. In some respects, the parallels to Magic Leap are stronger, because Magic Leap claims to have developed light field technology. But whilst Avegant has already demonstrated their technology in the Glyph – aiming light directly into the eye – Magic Leap continues to play its cards close to its chest.
Avegant demoed the technology to The Verge over a year ago and it was deemed superior to the HoloLens, despite the fact that HoloLens was a standalone wireless device, whereas the Avegant required the processing power of a high-spec PC. The main strengths of the Avegant headset were its superior field of view and the sharpness and clarity of its image display.
The demo – in a conference room at Avegant’s corporate offices - included views of the solar system and the ocean floor. In the solar system view which one could see Jupiter’s red spot and a satellite orbiting earth. What was so impressive about this demo was that objects of different focal length could be shown in a fixed environment. The Verge writer gave the example of squinting until the sun went out of focus and then seeing the virtual Saturn in sharp focus, including its rings.
There was also a sea view that showed a sea turtle and small, aquatic creatures in sharp definition. The reporter was able to stick his hand into the images, but because the prototype didn’t yet have an advanced tracking system, it was not possible to interact with it. In the HoloLens demo, in contrast, one can tap on one’s coffee table to trigger a display of virtual molten lava.
The demo in fact used the public asset library of the Unity game engine for the images and off-the-shelf cameras for the tracking to identify real objects in the room. Avegant’s long-term strategy calls for inside-out tracking to avoid the need for external cameras or trackers.
To some extent, Avegant is also somewhat secretive about its technology. While refusing to reveal precisely how the company implements light field technology, Founder and new CEO Tang hinted that the HoloLens is based on conventional 3D stereoscopy. Microsoft’s own secrecy policy has prevented them from revealing details of their “light engine”.
Similarly, Rony Abovitz, the CEO of Magic Leap, has criticized Microsoft’s image creation technology and claimed that Magic Leap’s is superior. However, given the absence of evidence that anyone outside Microsoft knows what technology they are using – and given Magic Leap’s own secrecy, there is no way of knowing who has the best technology. All we know for sure is that Avegant has had practical market experience of light field technology, while Magic Leap has had $1.3 million in funding and backing from Google parent Alphabet, while Microsoft has huge size and a range of experience.
It might be the financial disadvantage that has forced Avegant to scale back its efforts in AR. It is worth noting that despite Microsoft’s size – or maybe because of it – they released what was essentially a far from finished product and then charged $3000 for it. In contrast, Avegant’s personal cinema retailed for $799 – the price point for many high-end VR and AR products.
Avegant still in the AR race
The sudden downsizing and replacement of the CEO suggests that Avegant is having trouble matching its larger competitors when it comes to funding. Ed Tang himself has said that the company is in the process of closing a $10 million funding round that would bring their total capital raised to $60 million since the company’s inception in 2012.
However, there are several more serious omens that bode ill for the company. It has noticeably lowered its public profile on Facebook and Twitter in the last few months, despite a very active and vigorous presence before that. And the last time it posted a new video on its YouTube channel was half a year ago.
This can suggest one of two things: either it is going through some kind of malaise that threatens its very existence, or it is legally obliged to go quiet because it is planning to announce an initial public offering and doesn’t want to be seen as hyping a product still in development, that is nowhere near market ready. The downsizing suggests the former. However, it could also be a strategy to ensure that the company is optimized for efficiency when it launches on the stock market.