While smartphones have revolutionized how convenient it is to access information, visionary-like imagination has ensured they are not the end of the line in terms of how far technology can go.
Vision is the operative word for Rochester, New York-based Vuzix Corp. (OTCQB:VUZI), which gives new meaning to the term "hands-free." Its eyewear has the ability to project a virtual interface in front of a user comparable to what can be viewed on a touch screen.
“Everybody is talking about what’s next and it’s really about wearable computing devices," president and Vuzix’s chief executive officer Paul Travers told Proactive Investors.
To be clear, wearable display devices, in development for decades, aren't exactly new. But what's holding them back from critical mass is their design and performance. Most models that have reached either the enterprise or consumer market have been clunky and cumbersome. Vuzix is trying to change that.
"One thing we get from customers is, 'Can’t you hire an industrial designer to make these things look good?' The fact of the matter is the technology associated with the optics makes it practically impossible to do that today,” Travers says.
Despite the aesthetical challenges, Vuzix is forging ahead with commercial-use eye wear with smartphone-like capabilities as sleek as a pair of sunglasses. The goal is to deliver such a product to the market next year.
Technophiles may point out that Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is ahead of the game with its prototype, Glass, which just a limited sample of early adopters has had the chance to play with so far, ahead of its wide-scale release next summer. But Travers, who has been involved with head-mounted display technology since the early 90s, is quick to dismiss the futility of going directly head-to-head with such a tech behemoth.
“It’s not about a competition between us and Glass. We are all at the early stages of this market. We’ve got a different focus. Google has aimed right at the consumer," says Travers. “Google Glass is a good start. But ultimately we have to get to the point where we’ve got touchscreens and iPhone type of performance in the glasses. And that’s the path that Vuzix is on.”
Indeed, Vuzix, founded in 1997, is gradually positioning itself to capture the enterprise market. The applications are endless, from pipeline inspections to emergency room medical procedures to jet repairs on a tarmac. And where it goes beyond the smartphone set is with what it calls augmented reality, which captures the real world and enhances it with web data. “The phone is not really designed to deliver those experiences,” Travers says.
For the time being, Vuzix has reached the market with what could be considered a prelude to the sunglasses. The M100 model was revealed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, where it won the Best of Innovations Award for the Wireless Handset Accessory category. It’s aimed at the so-called “prosumer” crowd and the enterprise markets. Travers describes the experience of using the device, which runs on Google’s Android operating system and resembles a headset more than eyewear, like wearing a smartphone. “When you look at the display, it’s like literally holding the phone in front of you.”
Even though the M100 is supposed to be progressively more advanced than a smartphone, it also works cooperatively with one: applications running on both devices can communicate with one another.
Vuzix has released another model from the M-Series, the M2000, into the industrial market where ruggedized devices are required, along with a much larger field-of-view capability than the M100. It is also the first product to utilize the company’s revolutionary see-through and ultrathin waveguide optics. Even with the emphasis on professional applications, the company also caters to consumers with a line of binocular video eyewear models that enable the user to watch 2D and 3D movies on a 75-inch virtual display, an experience similar to being “in the front row of a movie theatre.”
In its latest quarter, Vuzix’s revenue grew 7.6% year-over-year to $0.7 million. Travers expects the company to “substantially grow revenues in 2014” as a new consumer model gets released and M100 and M2000 sales grow. ABI Research forecasts the wearable computing device market will grow to 485 million annual device shipments by 2018 and of that, 75 million will be smart glasses. That should bode well for Vuzix’s top line growth.
“It’s a big market opportunity. It’s finally reached a point where the technology can start to appeal to the mass market,” Travers says. “The reason it’s happening is phones are being used for a lot more than what they started being used for.”
Investors are catching on. The market value of the company has grown more than a third so far this year.