April 15, 2024

Meet the small startup that aims to take on Apple and Meta with AI-powered smart glasses

Brilliant Labs does not suffer from a lack of ambition. This three-person startup aims to surpass Silicon Valley giants in its quest to develop augmented reality glasses for the masses. A large order? Yes. But Brilliant Labs has the backing of some big-name investors, so don’t rule them out just yet.

YesSingapore’s industrial zone, just west of its air base, is home to a manufacturing plant, where technicians dressed in bunny suits (plastic coveralls that prevent pollution) hover over workstations as they carefully craft sophisticated optics. The facility is run by a company called Moveon Technologies, which makes optical components for a client list that includes companies such as Samsung, Philips and Dyson.

But hidden in a back corner of that facility is a startup that’s partnered with Moveon Technologies in hopes of developing what it says has the potential to be the next big thing in personal computing.

Bobak Tavangar founded Brilliant Labs five years ago because he saw the potential of building augmented reality glasses that would integrate AI capabilities into a lightweight design that would effectively give users “visual superpowers,” as he likes to say. And the 35-year-old CEO aims to develop the technology on an open source platform, so that legions of developers can access his code and create new applications for the device.

“It’s the next big leap, not just in terms of hardware appearance, but also in terms of artificial intelligence,” says Tavangar. “They can act as his co-pilot or his friendly assistant to help him navigate the world around him.”

Brilliant Labs is preparing to launch the first version of its smart glasses in the first quarter of this year, and Tavangar says they will initially have the functionality to process natural language commands. Going forward, he wants the glasses to develop more features, such as visual and audio cues based on elements detected in the user’s immediate environment, as well as the ability to adjust the resolution, zoom, and color contrast of the real-world view. through the glasses. .

Tavangar clearly has sky-high ambitions for his glasses, but he’s operating in an industry that hasn’t taken off yet. Despite a decade-long effort by companies with much deeper pockets, the The AR space remains a niche market. Google Glass and Microsoft’s HoloLens failed to gain traction among consumers, so Google stopped selling the latest version of Glass, while Microsoft decided to focus on enterprise customers.

Brilliant Labs is keeping this in mind when playing the long game. Tavangar says his rivals are “bleeding money like nobody’s business,” while his startup is trying to build on a profitable foundation.

The funding Tavangar cites comes from sales of Brilliant Labs’ first product, the Monocle, an AR lens that clips onto a pair of regular glasses. Monocle has built-in ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion extensions, allowing users to ask questions, translate conversations, and generate creative images with voice commands. Tavangar and his colleagues are still working out some of the bugs, but Monocle is a working model that illustrates where Brilliant Labs is headed.

The Monocle was built using open source software, which has allowed nearly 3,000 developers to program it for a wide range of different uses, from putting names with faces and learn to play musical instruments to help hearing impaired people identify sounds. It was even programmed by a group of Stanford students to Give suggestions for things to say when going on a date or interviewing for a job..

Priced at $299, the Monocle has already sold more than 3,000 units since February when it first hit the market, but Tavangar was unwilling to reveal exact revenue or profit figures.

Monocle is an important step in achieving Tavangar’s vision for Brilliant Labs, which has already managed to gain the support of some major backers, such as Adam Cheyer, co-founder of Siri. Cheyer cites Tavangar’s plan to integrate advanced vision capabilities into AR glasses as one of the reasons he came on board as an investor.

“I haven’t seen anyone else try to do this,” Cheyer says. “That’s a brilliant vision from Brilliant Labs… instead of having specialized headsets just for working with computer generated graphics, the ability to literally take vision and apply ocular transformations to give superpowers to people who want to see better, I thought. which was very, very nice.”

Brilliant Labs declined to reveal its latest valuation, but the startup said it managed to raise $6 million from investors including Brendan Iribe, co-founder of virtual reality headset maker Oculus VR, Eric Migicovsky, founder of early smartwatch maker Pebble, and Steve Sarowitz, the billionaire founder of payroll company Paylocity. Other Backers include early PayPal investors Plug and Play Ventures and venture capital firm Coho Deeptech.

Tavangar first ventured into the AR space in 2012, after graduating from the University of Cambridge with a master’s degree in management. He was involved in two startups that developed AI computer vision software for existing hardware platforms, but neither of them managed to generate enough revenue to sustain the businesses. His experience also made him realize that building a successful consumer AR device would require integrating hardware with software.

Tavangar later landed a job at Apple as a program leader in Shanghai. His work primarily focused on implementing software in the tech giant’s supply chain, but his ambition to build his own AR device never faded.

Tavangar founded Brilliants Labs in Hong Kong in 2019 and moved to Singapore last year. From day one, he has run the company with just two partners, chief engineer Raj Nakarja, based in Stockholm, and chief designer, Ben Heald, based in Shanghai.

Meanwhile, Brilliant Labs faces an increasingly crowded field of rivals seeking success where Google and Microsoft have already stumbled. Apple will begin sales of its long-awaited mixed reality headset, Vision Pro, on February 2. The device, which combines virtual and augmented reality, has a high starting price of $3,499.

Meta, for its part, began shipping its latest mixed reality headsets in October. The base model of the Quest 3 starts at $499, but experts say it still lacks a great app.

Also in October, Meta began selling smart glasses it co-developed with luxury sunglasses maker Ray-Ban. The price of that device is much lower at $299, but it also comes with reduced functionality. The glasses are similar to the offerings from Amazon and Snap in that they do not have AR lenses, but rather their functions are limited to taking photos, filming videos, making phone calls, and listening to music.

Tavangar says the headphones already available to consumers are mostly designed to be kept on a couch or desk because they are “quite big, quite heavy, and quite expensive.” Brilliant Labs’ smart glasses are designed for active people who want “their life experience to be augmented by the power of generative AI.”

Another big concern for Tavangar is data security. He points out that his smart glasses will have the functionality to record everything that users see and do, so it is necessary to implement common security measures to protect user data. Brilliant Labs’ policy to address the issue is to keep user data off the company’s servers while ensuring it cannot be passed to third parties, Tavangar says.

The CEO of Brilliant Labs predicts that mass adoption of AR is just around the corner. Tavangar says it’s likely to happen in 2025 because he estimates that by then developers will have figured out how to make the most of the technology and created a range of apps for consumers.

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