By now, you’ve probably heard all about Google Glass, and the amazing future of augmented reality that they’ve introduced to the world. However, what if I told you that before Google ever introduced their innovative glasses to the world, that there was another company already busy at work developing its own similar invention – a pair of sporty looking glasses that could project digital images from your smartphone right onto the lenses before your very eyes?
That’s exactly the case. Nearly a year before Google announced the Google Glass project, there was a small Italian startup company made of an idea-man, and a circle of scientists and designers, figuring out how to use a digital projection system, mirrors, and coated lens technology to show text messages, emails, news, GPS data and more, floating right in front of your eyes like a holographic digital display. To be honest, in a lot of ways it sounds even better than Google Glass.
That startup is called GlassUp, and on July 17th it announced that the company would be accepting pre-orders as part of its ongoing Indiegogo campaign, set up to raise $150,000 in funding to accelerate getting the product to market. However, Francesco Giartosio, the CEO of GlassUp, has advised us that not reaching the Indiegogo funding goal will not stop the product from getting to market, thanks to new investors.
The whole concept of augmented reality embedded into glasswear is something that I’ve always found extremely exciting, so I jumped at the opportunity to interview Francesco about the past, present and future of this small augmented reality startup company, positioning itself to take on the powerhouse known as Google.
Introducing GlassUp Augmented Reality
You’ve seen Google Glass, with its small square display device just above the right eye. It’s the sort of thing that’s really interesting, but I can’t help but wondering how weird I’ll look walking down the street wearing one of these things.
GlassUp is unique in that the glasses are actually really stylish. This probably isn’t surprising when you consider that it’s an Italian company – Italy being home to some of the leading designer eyeglass brands in the world.
They look pretty cool, don’t they? Working through their publicist Erica Zeidenberg, I was able to hook up with Francesco Giartosio via a Skype video chat.
MakeUseOf: The glasses look very cool, and it looks like you have the camera system on one side?
Francesco: Yes, on the one side you have the optical system, which sends the image to the glasses, with the aid of mirrors and the optical lenses. So, ultimately the image appears right in front of you.
MakeUseOf: So in simple terms is it basically a projector?
Francesco: Yes, exactly.
The Question of Focus
MakeUseOf: Google deals with focus by altering light so the perceived image is up and off to the side. How do you deal with allowing the eye to focus on text so close to the face?
Francesco: Well, first I do want to say that something we’re very proud of is that we have a system that is very different than what Google has. In the case of our glasses, you can see the writing or the image right in front of you. In the case of Google Glass, you have to look up and to the right to see the display. As far as the focus, it depends on what you are doing. For instance, if you’re riding on a bike, you’ll have the focus set about six meters in front of you. However, if you want to look at your hands right in front of your face, yes you’ll have to change your focus.
MakeUseOf: Just to be clear, you mean if you are focusing on an object that’s 6 meters in front of you, you’ll still be able to read the projected writing on the lens?
Francesco: Yes, the focus of the writing is not a problem. Depending on how you’ve set them [the glasses], you can see the writing while looking at an object a few meters away if you’ve set them that way, but if you are looking out into the distance, you’ll have to change the focus, yes.
MakeUseOf: So the focus distance of the display will be adjustable?
Francesco: Exactly. You can’t see the writing when you’re looking very close as well as very far away. You have to set it at a certain distance, which is the one that you know you’ll be using most often.
Going Up Against Google
MakeUseOf: Are there any patent issues that you have to deal with regarding Google? Do you have your own patents?
Francesco: We have a patent on our technology. When we first started working on this technology, we started working with an optical scientist to come up with the best design. Later, when we heard about Google Glass coming out, we took a look at their design and realized that after a few minutes you have to stop using them because it feels very uncomfortable, and that is what differentiates us from Google Glass. Other things that differentiate us is that we have a much sharper digital image. Also, we wanted them to look like a regular pair of glasses, we wanted them to last longer, and we wanted them to cost half as much.
MakeUseOf: I’ve heard that you’ve already been contacted by Google about this product?
Francesco: Yes, but their concern wasn’t about the technology, because our technology is very different. The concern was about the trademark. As far as Google was concerned, on the one side they were worried, but on the other side they were enthusiastic. The issue though, was the trademark Google Glass. They were concerned about the “Glass” part. We came up with our trademark as “GlassUp” and we responded to those concerns that we simply can not call them anything other than glass – after all, they are eyeglasses. That’s just what they are.
MakeUseOf: You’ve decided to go with Indigogo for fundraising, why not Kickstarter?
Francesco: Yes, actually we wanted to go with Kickstarter originally, because it is big and brings much more excitement. However, in order to go to Kickstarter, you have to start an account; and to have an account, you have to set up a U.S. business location. To have a U.S. business location, you need a tax number. For a tax number, you have to have a local residence. Then, we discovered that eyeglasses are not even allowed on Kickstarter anymore. So it was after that when we decided that we needed to go to Indiegogo.
MakeUseOf: I didn’t realize Kickstarter doesn’t allow eyeglasses?
Francesco: That’s right, and we tried to explain to them that these weren’t for fashion, these are technology.
Smartphone Communications and Apps
MakeUseOf: What’s the communication protocol between the glasses and the smartphone?
Francesco: The glasses have an output for mobile [Bluetooth], except in an implementation for something like the a facility or business. For example, surgeons might use them in a hospital environment, or a maintenance department in manufacturing. In such cases the implementation would be Wi-Fi, and the end-user would have to download an app to his mobile for that to work. Soon, we will be developing a whole lot of apps, and we’ll be providing an SDK to external developers to develop even more apps for the eyeglasses.
MakeUseOf: You already have developers signing up to do that?
Francesco: It’s beautiful. We already have some people asking for specific apps for certain uses, and on the other side we already have developers ready to develop those apps.
MakeUseOf: Are there any apps you’ve already developed?
Francesco: We’ve developed applications right now for testing the prototype. However, we do have plans to develop many more.
MakeUseOf: What do you envision for future creative applications for these glasses?
Francesco: Yes, absolutely we envision a great deal. Motorbike drivers won’t need to stop to navigate, international travelers will be able to see a translation of what the person in front of them is saying. We have ideas for applications in many industries like maintenance, transportation, medical services, cinema, and much more.
MakeUseOf: Google Glass has a camera. Do you see that as being a part of the future for GlassUp as well?
Francesco: That’s interesting. When we started, we decided not to have the camera because we decided to have the glasses receive, not send data. On the other hand, there are people that are asking for it. On the development side, it can be very expensive, but there’s certainly some benefit and applications for object recognition.
MakeUseOf: Then again, you might avoid the privacy issues being raised about Google Glass?
Francesco: This is very true. In Europe and in particular Germany, they are even more attentive to this. So, we’re going to be very careful with this.
The Indiegogo Campaign and Entering the Market
MakeUseOf: If you get the funding goal at Indiegogo, do you have a timeline to market?
Francesco: One thing I want to say is that even if we don’t reach the funding goal, we’re still going to move forward. We have alternative funding options available, so there is nothing stopping us. The prototype is finished, and we will have the final prototype in September. In November we’ll have the templates made, and by March we will have the glasses on the market.
MakeUseOf: Are you already getting contacted by anyone for big purchases?
Francesco: A lot of them yes. We have some companies in maintenance. We’ve been contacted by big company in the fitness area and a number of companies in a number of other major sectors as well. There is a lot of interest and momentum.
MakeUseOf: If there are huge orders, do you have the manufacturing capacity in place already?
Francesco: It’s kind of funny, because when we started we were thinking we would be starting out with orders of a few hundred at a time, but then when we started talking to distributors, they started asking if they could buy 50,000 and up. So yes, we have a partner who is already building other similar products in China, so we would likely be using that same factory and making an agreement with that company to build them there.
MakeUseOf: Was this whole concept your own brain child?
Francesco: This started in early 2011, and yes it was my brainchild. I’ve always been very passionate about technology and this kind of thing, and I started on a number of different products and ideas. I picked up on this idea of something that I would personally like to have, and so then I just needed to find specialists in the right areas of expertise. At first we started out with just an optical scientist, and then we started bringing on more folks to start designing and building the prototype.
MakeUseOf: Were you nervous when you first heard about Google Glass?
Francesco: Well, yes. At the beginning I thought maybe perhaps we’d have to close the company. But then we looked at the advantage of having a player like Google Glass in the market. The digital imaging industry has grown by 90%, so the way we look at it even if Google takes almost all of that, and we only get 10%, that’s still a lot. I have asked my business development manager to put the numbers together so that we can get better financing options, knowing how many we can potentially sell in this market.
MakeUseOf: Are you focusing on just the U.S. or European market at first?
Francesco: No, we’re focusing on the whole world.
If this project excites you, feel free to check out the Indiegogo campaign and contribute. For as little as $199, you can claim your GlassUp from the first production run. That’s quite a bit less than the Google Glass pre-order price, isn’t it?
I’d like to thank Francesco for taking the time to chat, and to tell us all about the little startup project that may very well prove to be Google Glass’s biggest competitor some day. Only time will tell.
What do you think of GlassUp? Does it stand a chance against giant Google? Are you planning to contribute and get your pair of glasses? Share your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below!
Images provided by Francesco Giartosio with permission