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Through the Looking Glass: Tech start-up aims to move virtual reality beyond goggles

Engineers at Looking Glass HQ
Source: Looking Glass HQ

In a nondescript former glass factory in Brooklyn, a start-up is attempting to pioneer a gear-less future of virtual reality — and hoping consumers will pay hundreds of dollars to partake in that vision.

The company, Looking Glass, creates three-dimensional holographic displays in transparent cubes that harness more than 2 million pixels. On Wednesday, the company launched Volume, a 21-inch, 30 pound personal volumetric display that allows users to create and share their own 3-D content.

Here’s the catch: At a time when the fulcrum of VR tech revolves around the use of cumbersome hardware, Volume’s selling point is creating interactive 3-D experiences that don’t use headgear or glasses.

It’s part of what founder Shawn Frayne calls a “contrarian bet” he anticipates will become the future of a VR sector that’s a recent report by Goldman Sachs said was rapidly morphing into a juggernaut worth at least $82 billion.

Looking Glass hopes that the launch of Volume can create a “flywheel effect of more and more great content, and better…volumetric display, and then we can down the road compete with VR and AR systems in the future,” Frayne told CNBC in a recent interview from the company's offices in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint section, with expansive views overlooking both Queens and Manhattan.

This is for people that want a taste of the future before anyone else, and really for folks who want to help build that future with Looking Glass.
Shawn Frayne
founder, Looking Glass

Volume suffers from some of the problems one might associate with the first generation of an emerging device: A price tag large enough to make the average techie balk and questions about whether it can stake a claim in a highly competitive sector. Meanwhile, in a world dominated by VR gear, early opinions of the device's future prospects have been less than favorable.

If — and it's a rather big if — Looking Glass proves successful in its audacious bid to free virtual reality from the encumbrances of hardware, Frayne hopes the technology can "take over the entire digital and real world landscape, but by making increasingly compelling experiences that groups of people can experience without having to have headgear on."

That would mean there would be room enough for Samsung's Gear, or Facebook's Oculus, but Volume's technology would function as a counterweight.

"There will be times when you want to gear up but the less times that can happen, the more social environment we can preserve into the deep future," said Frayne, a 35-year-old native of Tampa, Florida, and an MIT graduate. His first foray into the world of 3-D images was as a teenager, when he created a "homebrew" holographic image of a Mickey Mouse figurine.

Looking Glass isn't the only company trying to pioneer the next generation of VR. Recently, a team of researchers at Microsoft has been attempting to make it easier for computer users to interact with virtual images with a mere flick of the wrist. Microsoft expects the hand recognition technology will have a wide variety of practical and professional uses.

The set-up of Apple's new iPhone 7 will make it easier to capture 3-D video, an option already offered by other camera makers like HTC. In theory, the increasing availability of 3-D will make it easier for users to share such content.

Looking Glass says Volume could be useful for artistic or entertainment — like illustrating a picture, creating holographic video or playing video games — or for scientific purposes.

Doctors can use the device to create 3-D images of organs or expand microscopic images.

"We're really stressing that this is not something you'd buy at Best Buy," Frayne said.

"This is for people that want a taste of the future before anyone else, and really for folks who want to help build that future with Looking Glass. Because it's so frontier of a technology, there's massive opportunities for people to have a first."

Building the future won't come cheap. Looking Glass is offering Volume at a list price of $2,099, but customers who preorder can grab one at a discounted price of $999. The device is available for preorder on the company's website, and will begin shipping in April.