Mira, a Los Angeles-based startup, announced Prism, a $99 augmented reality headset that’s powered by an iPhone. The headset will ship to developers this fall, and the company will put the device in the hands of consumers by the holiday season. Unlike AR devices such as Microsoft’s HoloLens or the Epson Moverio, which project images produced from dedicated processors onto custom, complex optics, Prism is merely reflecting an iPhone’s image off a precisely-curved plastic lens back onto your eyes, creating a hologram-like effect. In a way, it’s the equivalent of the Samsung Gear VR, but for AR.
We had a chance to try out a near-shipping version of the headset, along with several prototype experiences. As with so many of the early XR devices we’re seeing, the Prism has some compelling attributes, but chief among them are the price point and the fact that it’s AR. By choosing AR and the iPhone as the target device, Mira has a playing field largely to itself at the moment, but its top priority will have to be coaxing the developer community to provide compelling content in this nascent entertainment arena.
First, The Headset
The company’s CEO, Ben Taft, wouldn’t commit to a final weight, but he said Mira is aiming to ship it at less than a pound. The Samsung Gear VR is about 0.7 lbs, just as a reference. The Prism’s resolution is set at half of the iPhone’s resolution per eye (an iPhone 6 or 7 has a resolution of 1334×750). Its field of view is 60°, and although we don’t have official specs for Microsoft’s HoloLens, some have pegged its FOV at less than 40°. Epson Moverio’s FOV is 23°.
In our experience with the Prism, the FOV does seem bigger than the HoloLens, although it’s been a while since we last experienced Microsoft’s offering, and unsurprisingly, Mira didn’t have one on hand for comparison purposes.
Regardless, even at 60°, the Prism’s FOV feels a bit limited. The Prism’s resolution also seems to be quite a bit less than that of the HoloLens (Microsoft lists the hologram image as having 2.3 million “total points of light,” so good luck making a direct correlation). In some of the early prototype experiences, we noticed that the resolution degraded a bit game to game. This is where any further comparisons to the HoloLens end; these are, of course, completely different products in entirely different classes, aimed at different markets and purposes.
The Prism includes a fairly comfortable modular strap, with a forehead cushion inside. The cushion is made of foam, with a soft plastic core to give it shape. The cushion and the strap are easily removed or disassembled. The strap is made of TPU material. The lenses attach to the headset with magnets. They’re made of polycarbonate plastic, with a special inside coating that reflects light at a particular angle (for each eye). The outside is covered with an anti-reflective coating, with another hard coating on top for protection.
There are no active electronics in the lenses, nor refractive properties. It’s a fairly simplistic and cost-effective solution; custom optics are prohibitively expensive for a small startup, but the crafty founders figured out how to find clear plastic that matched the radius and curvature needed to make the lenses. During the prototype stage, they cut the lenses from plastic fishbowls. Now, Mira works with an industrial design company and manufacturers overseas.
A Different Kind Of Play Mat
The Prism also comes with a small remote that looks quite a bit like the Daydream VR controller. It includes a touchpad, a trigger button, and two regular buttons. The remote uses accelerometers and a gyroscope to track its movement, and as such you can use it as an interactive device within an AR experience, such as turning it into a magic wand or a fishing rod.
The headset is tracked via the accelerometers and gyroscope included in the iPhone, and it will show you content without any other help, but the Prism does rely heavily on markers. It comes with a cardboard play map for more precise tracking, and the software is trained to use the iPhone’s front-facing camera to find this play map and turn it into a surface play area above which the hologram sits.
Although this can be used to project gameplay for solo experiences, it becomes much more interesting in shared gaming. Multiple Prisms can be paired via Bluetooth (using the iPhones, of course), and multi-player games will make use of the play map for this purpose. In fact, even if you don’t have Prism, using an iOS device and the Prism software, you can go into Mira Spectator mode to watch and explore an experience others in the room are enjoying.
We played a couple of games, one in which we were wiping out some villain donuts that hovered in space around us. To do this, we used the remote a little bit like we would a fly-fishing rod. (Killing the donuts also made us hungry.)
In another example, we projected a maze-like game onto the play map—here, we were tasked to get through the maze, consuming donuts Pacman style. (This made us even more hungry.) This was supposed to be a shared experience where two of us raced to see who could consume the most donuts, but the build was put onto the iPhone just moments before we began, and we ran into a bug. We played solo . . . and ate all the donuts. Interestingly, as we moved our head closer and further away from the physical marker, the holographic object would scale; it would get bigger as we moved closer, and smaller as we moved away. This is typical of AR, of course, but considering the relatively low-tech reflection method, we were pleasantly surprised that Prism offered it.
The company expects to see content such as mixed reality puzzles and holographic chess, and Taft even talked about an AR version of Battleship. There is also one of those tilting-rollerball games, where you’re using gravity to keep the ball on the table.
Prism is being powered by the Unity engine, and Mira has created an SDK for Unity as it gets the headsets into the hands of developers quickly. The SDK also helps developers define the marker surface (that play map tracker) for specific types of games and AR experiences. Said Matt Stern, COO and co-founder:
Mira is already working with a handful of select immersive content studios to develop an initial suite of premium applications that will be free and bundled with the Prism headset by delivery time. As a baseline, the headset will ship with this suite of compelling solo + multiplayer games, 3D design and visualization tools, and productivity applications. Additionally, by shipping developer kits first, we are giving 3rd party developers the opportunity to have their content be one of the first experiences new users get to try in AR in addition to Mira’s core bundle of apps.
Early Days And Education
Mira is a young startup. The principle founders (Taft, Stern, and Montana Reed) have been at work on this for about two years as part of the first class to emerge from the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young (aka Dr. Dre) Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation at USC. Indeed, co-Founder Matt Stern can be seen briefly in episode 4 of HBO’s “Defiant Ones,” a mini-series about Iovine and Young. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Mira has the weight of those two entrepreneurs behind it in some capacity, which is even more interesting given Iovine’s role at Apple (he runs Apple Music) and the company’s work on ARKit for iOS.
You’d have to wonder whether Mira is on Apple’s radar. Taft would not speculate, but he did say that where ARKit is focused on the phone in handheld mode (you see what the phone camera sees), the Prism is focused on projection via the external headset for a more “premium” (his word) experience. Taft said Mira is encouraging developers to work on both. He also told us that Mira focused on iOS because it has largely been untapped for AR and VR hardware. However, Android support is on the company’s roadmap, too. For now, Prism will work with the iPhone 6, 6s, and 7, because they share screen size and camera placement.
The company has raised seed money to the tune of $1.5 million, from Sequoia Capital, Troy Capital Partners, S-Cubed Capital, along with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, will.i.am, and Jens Christensen (who founded Jaunt VR). The company employs 12 people.
The Prism will be available for pre-order at on Mira’s site; the $99 gets you a headset, lens cover, remote, and carrying case.
Is This A Toy?
There’s a constant stream of XR hardware–devices, controllers, and so on–that we see via email pitches and at tradeshows, and as with any emerging tech, some of it is immensely promising (like the Vrvana Totem), whereas some of it is…not. Even among the gear that really works, we’re always asking ourselves if what we’re looking at is a great new tool, or a compelling entertainment device, or if it’s just a toy.
Mira’s Prism is dangerously close to toy territory, primarily by dint of the fact that it’s a rather single-purpose device and is handicapped by needing markers to enable most of its best features, but then again, perhaps the Mira folks are onto something here.
ARkit is happening–that’s just a fact–so what Mira is doing is surfing a wave by offering a $99 device that complements what’s already landing on people’s iPhones. We’ve stated before that AR through a smartphone screen is problematic, and we’ve advocated for pushing smartphone-powered AR viewing onto a lightweight HMD of some kind. Prism is not exactly what we had in mind, but it does have some promising ideas. Take the marker-full play map: On one hand, having your AR experiences bound to a physical piece of paper feels uncomfortably low tech, but it’s also simple and fun. We can imagine playing all sorts of tabletop games with friends, or letting the kids keep themselves entertained for hours. Yes, it requires a $99 device, but we live in a world where kids often have their own personal tablets, and parents let their kids play with their $700 smartphones. We also know from experience that XR tabletop experiences can be utterly engrossing.
There’s also the possibility that Prism can unlock some AR communication and productivity experiences, which would also be attractive to users.
We’ll refrain from pontificating further on the Prism; these are still early days in the XR world, and who’s to say what will stick and what won’t. Meantime, new ideas and angles, like this one (thought up by students, we would remind you) keeps things fresh.