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Google has been getting lots of attention over the past year for its Project Glass initiative, starting with a widely viewed video that showed the search giant’s aspirations for augmented reality glasses. But that video was Google’s vision of the future, not a current reality.

The first prototypes of Google’s glasses use a small screen in the periphery of the eye, not an immersive pair of glasses. The problem is that we can’t focus on images so close to our eyes.

But a startup based in the Seattle region, Innovega, is moving ahead with its unique contact lens technology, iOptik, that refocuses light to let users see images and text projected onto glasses, augmenting but not blocking the view beyond the glasses.

Turn-by-turn directions using Innovega’s technology.

“Innovega is the only company with the technical solution capable of enabling the concept advanced by Google’s video,” explains Randall Sprague, the former chief engineer of Bothell-based Microvision, who founded Innovega along with Stephen Willey, the former Microvision president.

Innovega is working with DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to develop a wearable prototype by September, with a goal of bringing the technology to market by 2015.

The company has also released its own video, above, with the second part showing actual video of its technology in use. The images and text are displayed on the lens of the glasses via a small projector in the glasses, and the contact lenses help the viewer focus on the projected light even though it’s close to the eye.

GeekWire first ran across Innovega last year at the Consumer Electronics Show, and the company was back in Las Vegas again this year, demonstrating significant progress and making a big impression with a mannequin that showed the technology using a small camera in its eye socket.

We caught up with Sprague via email this week to find out more …

Q: What’s the status of your technology?

Sprague: We now have gas permeable contact lenses operational. These have not yet been through clinical trials, but we plan to start on-eye testing soon. We have already done on-eye testing with our previous non-permeable lenses.

Randall Sprague and Stephen Willey, founders of Innovega.

At last week’s CES show we demonstrated our technical approach to see-through display glasses by inserting a small camera into the eye socket of a mannequin. We then fit one of our contact lenses onto the camera. We placed a pair of glasses on the mannequin. An image was projected onto the spectacle lens of the glasses. The mannequin’s camera eye looked through the glasses to see the projected digital image superimposed onto the real world.

Q: What type of software and operating system are you using inside the system?

Sprague: This is a display device and is compatible with any operating system that generates HDMI video.

Q: Do you feel additional motivation to get to market quickly to beat Google’s Project Glass? Do you consider them a competitor?

Sprague: Google did us a big favor by promoting the notion of a wearable see-through display. They built up people’s expectations for being able to superimpose digital imagery on top of the real world. This is all good for Innovega since that is what we plan to implement. Google, and every other display provider, does not have a technical solution for delivering on the large image overlay that the Google video showed. Instead, Google is positioning their tiny image display as a “glance-able” data display.

An image from an Innovega video showing its technology in action.

By contrast, Innovega is targeting our display at three main applications, all of which require a large image. These applications are immersive gaming, large screen 3D video viewing, and mobile augmented reality. The first two applications require a large image in order to be highly engaging. The third application requires a large image to enable placing content freely over our view of the world. The Google glass is just not a credible device for any of these applications.

The Sony wearable display is somewhat credible for the gaming and video application, but even with its huge bulk and weight it only offers a 55 degree field of view which is small relative to Innovega’s 90 degree field of view. In addition to being a pain in the neck (literally) it has no utility in mobile applications since the wearer is completely blinded.

In what form do you think the technology would come to market? (From Innovega directly, or via a partner that would license the technology from you?)

Wearable displays is potentially a huge market. It seems unreasonable that a small company is going to be able to do this kind of product justice given the variety of applications that could be served by such a device. We therefore would prefer to seek out strategic partners that are already strong players in their markets and enable them to bring great products to market.

What are the most realistic initial applications? Will the first use cases be for consumers or business?

We will let our strategic partners make these decisions. However, it seems obvious that gaming is a very logical first application. A large-image wearable display can add an incredible experience to gaming. A see-through display could expand gaming even further in ways that few people have even thought of. In addition to gaming, there are many other obvious applications. Just being able to work on my laptop with privacy while on the plane would be a nice thing. This kind of application doesn’t need much hardware or software to support it, just an HDMI output.

Still the most exciting applications are the mobile reality-augmenting applications. The world has not really begun to think about how to best exploit this possibility. I expect to see something like we saw with smart phone applications. Once the creativity of thousands of developers is tapped into, who knows what great applications will emerge.

Any changes in the status of the company since we last spoke?

We are now up to six employees. We are relying heavily on a number of high-quality outside engineering contracting firms. We have been fortunate to make a lot of progress based on government grants and contracts. Because of this, we haven’t had to dilute our equity yet by involving investors. However, the time has come where we are out looking to bring in money. We want to accelerate the development now that we have proven the basic science behind our architecture.

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