Apple's imminent wave of iPhone augmented reality works on your phone's screen, using its camera to inject characters into the real world. But AR headsets are out there too, bringing that idea to life in front of your eyes. One of them costs less than you think.
The Mira Prism, coming later in 2017, is a simple headband visor that uses your iPhone to reflect 3D images right in front of your face for about $100 (roughly £75 or AU$125).
It looks like a fancy giant sun visor or a futuristic welder's mask, and it easily fits over my head. Holding a little remote, I can point at floating cartoon planets hovering near my desk.
Trying to make holographic things dance in front of your face usually requires a pair of high-end smartglasses, or a headset like the Microsoft HoloLens. In my time with the Prism, it wasn't as amazing as the HoloLens, or the demos that are already being pulled off with Apple's upcoming ARKit, Apple's toolset for making surprisingly good augmented reality on iPhone screens. But as a cheap accessory to make augmented reality available for a lot of people? It works. It's a little like Google Cardboard for augmented reality... at a higher price.
The Los Angeles-based company, Mira, is founded by Ben Taft, Matt Stern and Montana Reed. All three are former students of USC's Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. Mira already has funding from Will.i.am and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, among others.
The Prism uses an iPhone (sorry, no Android version for now), which pops into the headband using elastic, snapping into place. A large mirrored visor reflects the phone's stereoscopic images, turning them into floating three-dimensional, but virtual, objects. I got a demonstration at CNET's offices, and the 3D images felt convincing enough. Polygonal planets spread around me and I controlled a rocket ship using a long elastic tether that I extended and retracted using a handheld wand-remote. I made the ship take off and land on the table, with the help of an included round cardboard marker.
Mira has plans for games and entertainment apps, plus a partnership with some sort of entertainment property. Disney's already making its own AR/mixed reality headset with Lenovo. The Mira Prism could be a way to make more affordable accessories for AR kits and games. In fact, the multiplayer part is Mira's biggest aspiration. Several people could play with the same AR experience, or someone could watch and snap shots of it all on another phone running the Mira app.
The headset will be on sale "in time for the holidays" and comes out for developers this fall, but so do Apple's augmented reality platform, ARKit, and the new iPhone. ARKit is already enabling some shockingly impressive tech demos and requires no headset at all. According to Mira's founders, that's fine: The goal for the Prism is to have apps take advantage of ARKit to make its future apps look even better. A software development kit (SDK) and Unity compatibility will make apps easier to make.
But that's also assuming that developers are interested in making apps that work with the Prism, which uses its own wireless remote that feels like a cross between Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR's tiny plastic wands.
The Mira Prism, if nothing else, proves that affordable AR headsets are coming. My guess is this won't be the only one: There could be a wave of novelty AR devices for phones in the next year, much like cheap VR headsets have appeared everywhere from Best Buy to drug stores.
Will Mira be the killer idea in a world of potentially competing AR products? My biggest concern about the Prism is that Apple's imminent phone-AR already promises to be really good, and will likely work with tons of apps. Why would anyone buy a separate headset that doesn't have quite as advanced positional tracking? (Mira's remote has motion controls, but it lacks six degrees of freedom tracking, meaning it doesn't have the same ultraprecise location awareness as top-end VR and AR headsets and controllers.)
The Mira Prism needs to prove its software is worth it. The price is right, but the timing might be a challenge. If Prism can open the doors to headset-enabled phone apps, however, Mira could be onto something.