ID Interviews Edward Tang, Co-Founder and CTO of Avegant
Edward Tang oversees the strategic direction of Avegant, which develops head-mounted mixed-reality technology. He also drives the company’s business development and fundraising activities. Prior to Avegant, Tang started Tang Engineering Consulting LLC, a consulting and design firm for the MEMS community. He received his B.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan.
Conducted by Jenny Donelan
Tell us about Avegant.
Before I started the company about five years ago, several of us were working on new display technologies with the Department of Defense. At the time, the [DoD] guys were saying, “We need better displays for mission-critical type applications. We need stuff that’s higher resolution, higher color fidelity, lower latency, higher performance.” So we ended up forming Avegant to develop a new display technology – which I would describe as bio-inspired – to meet that demand.
When we look at the world, we’re seeing light reflected off of objects. We’re not looking at flat panels. So we got rid of the usual display panels and pixels, because those cause a lot of eye strain. And we built a retinal projection system that used digital micro-mirror displays. This system reflects light onto your retina, and is getting closer to how we actually see. With this technology, which we call retinal imaging, users were experiencing higher perceived resolution, higher framerates, better color, and also much lower eye fatigue. That’s what motivated us to start this company. We had developed some prototypes of our retinal projection technology, and were pleasantly surprised by how well they worked.
ID: Those prototypes became the Glyph, is that right?
ET: Yes. About two years ago, we started shipping a consumer product based on this technology called the Glyph. It was designed for general consumers. Most people used it as a personal theater. It looks like a set of headphones [that projects a 720p HD screen in front of your eyes]. You plug it into your smartphone and you can watch anything you want – Netflix, Hulu, games. We found that roughly two thirds of our customers were using it for travel. The other one third, unexpectedly, was the drone
market. People were using these things to fly drones. Instead of looking down at your phone or tablet while flying your drone a mile away, you could put on your headset, and feel like you were up in the sky – a really incredible experience.
ID: The Glyph was received positively. Are you still selling it?
ET: We are still selling the Glyph. You can find it on Amazon in the US, and it’s also available in Europe and China. However, we’re focused on the future and that is around mixed-reality technologies.
ID: The focus is on mixed reality via light-field technology?
ET: About two and a half years ago, we started seeing an increased interest in VR [virtual reality] and after that we started seeing transparent AR [augmented reality] devices, so we decided that we needed to focus a lot of our research efforts on transparent displays. We found that it was not hard to build a transparent display, but it was hard to build the kind of mixed-reality experiences that people wanted.
One of the first things we tried to do was create an object overlaid onto a table that you could reach out and touch. The problem is in the way our eyes perceive how far away an object is. There are a lot of different depth cues. One of the most important cues is focus; your eye works a lot like a camera lens.It can actually change its focus and you can focus on something far away or up close.
So if I want to have a [virtual] object sitting on a table or in my palm, the focus of that object needs to be the same as my hand. Otherwise it doesn’t look right.
What light field does is allows us to display objects at the correct focal distance and multiple objects at different distances. So I can now have multiple objects in a scene with one close and one far away, and have it all happen at the same time.
What’s interesting is that even people who understand the light-field space really well and understand the approach that we’re taking are wowed by the experience when they put on one of our headsets. There’s something very human and experiential about it. When I open up my hand and see an object that’s in my palm, and it looks like a real object, there’s something about that experience that is indescribable. I do demos all year and I never get tired of seeing people, even people who are very technical, having these visceral reactions.
For another demo, we put a virtual person in the room, a woman standing there talking to you. You can walk up to her, but 99 percent of people stop about three or four feet away from her because they start feeling like they don’t want to invade her comfort zone. We encourage them to get closer and they start feeling very uncomfortable. You don’t have these kinds of reactions with regular computer imagery.
ID: Do you find yourself having to explain to a lot of people what the light field is?
ET: I do. It’s hard. It’s a very technical term. In fact what we do here is a little bit different from what a typical light-field display is. Our technology uses a multi-focal optical element, and, similarly to the Glyph, it projects light from a three-color LED through a chip filled with tiny mirrors and then onto your retina, where an image is formed.
ID: What about rendering? That seems to be the bottleneck for light-field displays at this time.
ET: I’m looking at a TV on the wall right now. If that TV were a light-field display, it would actually behave a lot like a window. I could see through it, and see depth, and if two different people were looking at the window from two different vantage points, they would see two different views. This is what I would call a full 4D light-field display, which means it has to send all the different angles of light, all the different data points, and all the different angles, all the time.
For a head-mounted display [HMD], this would be overkill. You’re never going to look at this display from a different direction; you’re only going to look at it from a fixed vantage point, where your eyes are. Because of that, we actually don’t need to use all that data. Our light-field displays today run on regular computers, and we actually have them running on mobile chipsets as well.
ID: What about light-field content? That’s another bottleneck you hear about.
ET: We created plug-ins for graphics engines such as Unity, which is the most popular [VR/AR] graphics engine these days. The plug-in allows Unity to output the light-field information that we need in real time for all the objects. All the content that people already have and have already created, thus works — on very low-compute power.
ID: Regarding the light-field technology, are you creating the HMD or are you creating the optics and outsourcing it to people who make the HMDs?
ET: The latter. We are providing our technology to the companies that make the HMDs.
ID: Let’s move to the business side of things. What has been your experience of working at a startup? Do you have advice for others?
ET: Startups are a rollercoaster. You have the extremes of emotion and experience at both ends – the highs and the lows – and those happen almost simultaneously. There are things that are going on that are so exciting that you can’t believe it. At the same time, the things that you worry about are incredibly stressful as well. Working at a [non-startup] company, you just don’t expose yourself to that dynamic range of emotions.
Another thing that’s amazing about being at a startup is when you’re not huge, you have this camaraderie and team involvement, and the impact that every single individual has at the company is something that makes people excited to come to work. Every single person knows that what they do has a tangible effect.
ID: Is there anything you look for that makes somebody a particularly successful startup team member?
ET: When you’re a small company, you need to make sure that people jibe with each other, that personality-wise, people have the right mentality to approach problems. That’s really important. Something else you must learn in a startup is you have to be very flexible. You can’t step into a role and say, “This is what I do and it’s all I’m gonna do and anything else is not my problem.” That’s not the right attitude to have. You can get away with that probably at a large company, but at a small company you need a lot of flexibility because there are always small fires that you’re putting out.
Right now we have about 45 to 50 people at Avegant. I’m sad that there will come a day when I walk in here and don’t know everybody’s names, but that will probably happen.
ID: Can you describe the transition from being an R&D enterprise to one that is at least equally focused on marketing?
ET: There are a couple of big hurdles to clear when you go from being a technology company to one that actually ships something. A very large hurdle, which many technologists don’t get, is that having something work as a prototype is very different from being able to make 100,000 of something that is manufacturable and passes quality control and works according to yield, cost, and scale, And then there are the logistics – working with third parties, copyrighting in foreign countries, managing time zones. How do we build an inventory? How do we get this distributed all over the world? How do we do the sales, the marketing that we need? Dealing with Amazon is very different from dealing with, say, Best Buy. It is a massive effort. The devil is in the details, but some of those details will kill your company. I know multiple companies that have gone out of business because of poor distribution terms, or payment terms.
ID: Companies with great products?
ET: Oh absolutely. When you’re an engineer you think that technology is the most important thing. And really it’s only a piece of the puzzle. If you don’t have a good management team, if you don’t have good sales, good operations – any one of these things will conquer you.
ID: What is the biggest lesson learned from your experience? Is there something you would definitely do differently next time and why?
ET: Every day is a humbling learning experience for me. Looking back, there are always small mistakes that you wish you could go back and do differently. Most of these are startup-related growing pains that everyone goes through. Being a serial entrepreneur, I just focus on moving fast and try not to get hung up about breaking things.
ID: When will we see commercial products incorporating your technology?
ET: We are not in a position to release exact dates, but you can expect products with our technology within the next year. Light field is what we are ready to have on the market and we’re very excited about it. We’ll be first. But we’re always working on the next thing. There are other display developments that we are working on that we look forward to sharing with you. •
Jenny Donelan is the editor in chief of Information Display magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.