Erick Miller talks fast. That’s fitting, considering he runs a boutique venture-capital firm called Hyperspeed Ventures.
At Wearable World Congress, Miller was in stealth mode, his role unrevealed until the very end of the conference. That’s when ReadWrite editor-in-chief Owen Thomas announced Miller as the surprise speaker he’d alluded to in a post last week.
Miller took to the stage Wednesday to talk about where he sees the future of wearables in general, and augmented and virtual reality in specific.
Those two areas are right in Miller’s wheelhouse. Before starting Hyperspeed, he cofounded Vergence Labs in 2011. His company was ahead of the curve in terms of wearable tech built for a person’s eyes. Its one major release, Epiphany Eyewear, crammed a tiny camera and a computer into a fashionable pair of frames. Think of a distilled version of Google Glass, but predating Glass by about two years.
Vergence Labs started as an idea that fueled Miller’s MBA thesis at UCLA. By 2011 Miller and his cofounder, Stanford student Jon Rodriguez, were working on an unreleased headset they referred to as an “immersive visor.”
Once again, theirs was an idea that was a bit ahead of its time: a VR headset that meshed virtual- and augmented-reality interfaces into one device, well before Oculus started heating up the virtual-reality market. It’s just another example of how Miller seems to be moving faster than the rest of us.
I sat down to speak with Miller before he went on the Congress stage to pick his brain on what he’s seen and where the industry is going.
One thing we couldn’t talk about: The reports that Vergence Labs had been acquired by Snapchat in 2014. That deal became public as a result of 2014’s massive hack of Sony, including the inbox of Sony Pictures chairman Michael Lynton, a Snapchat board member. Miller declined to talk about the acquisition or his departure for Hyperspeed. That still left us with plenty to talk about.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me about the “immersive visor” you were working on.
It had a completely new paradigm for human-computer interaction. We prototyped this to various stages, but the concept was brain-computer interface, gesture control, eye tracking, and a fully immersive visor with optics. And we had really wide-angle optics that you could both see through and be fully immersed in—AR and VR. You could see through the computer, but you were seeing through digital cameras, sort of like looking through a cell-phone camera.
We worked on it toward the end of 2010, but we really didn’t have anything but a prototype that was huge and clunky, crazy, attached to a laptop. We finished the prototype in 2011.
That was a really fun time, because we were pretty convinced that we were creating the future of computing. Maybe a little bit inspired by Pirates of Silicon Valley. We were pretty convinced that this was going to be the future of computing at that point.
Once we put that first prototype together and you could look through it and you could wear it and it was pretty compelling—the optics were almost completely surrounding you. And then what happened was this new paradigm we were imagining, it turned out it was really, really difficult to build. So we wanted to simplify.
And that led to the Epiphany Eyewear? I feel like I’ve seen those.
You might’ve seen those. They look similar to your glasses. They would record video or photos through the software, and they would also integrate with mobile as well as desktop software.
And this was a product you released.
Yeah. We shipped in very small batches, because manufacturing a product like this was pretty much completely new to the whole team. For the most part, we were all pretty new to the manufacturing process. During my MBA, I was in China and I understood how that sort of relationship could work, and we interfaced with a lot of manufacturers, but we never really manufactured products ourselves.
We learned a lot in that process, and it was really challenging.
So what happened with the visor?
The challenge that we had was figuring out how can we simplify this immersive reality computer into something we could iterate on quickly? Our version of that was to just focus on the smartglasses.
It was hard. As a startup we were a very small team, so we sort of saw it as something that we could evolve over time.
So the smartglasses got more of your attention as the visor appeared to be too much for a small team to tackle.
Totally. The thing that we would always talk about is creating an entirely natural human-computer interface. Something that was super simple to use, that would self-calibrate, that you could basically put on and it would be a transformative, magical experience.
This is one of the reasons that we didn’t focus on building that because we realized the complexity involved. And this is one of the reasons why we ended up dropping the display as well. It was just the level of complexity involved with having the display and having a product that was really appealing and well designed—they were conflicting with each other.
Having a pair of glasses that looked like yours and having the additional components required for display—those two things conflicted too much. So we kind of took the minimum-viable-product approach.
I feel like that decision did make a lot of sense. We said, “Let’s take this future computer that we want to build, this crazy concept, and minimize it down to the very basic core, the simplest thing that we think people would buy.” And then we could evolve it over time.
What are your thoughts on Oculus Rift and Google Glass and the other VR and AR devices that are coming out? Do they represent a viable future market or just a niche?
This is part of the challenge with building something, and this is something that Apple has done incredibly well at. You need to focus on some niche, or some vertical, and this was one of the challenges that we were having. We really wanted to build a product that everyone would want and everyone would use. We wanted to build a pair of glasses that everyone would think were cool.
I think if you look at some of the products that are out there, if you look at Skully, they’ve done an amazing job at this. They focused on a vertical that’s really appealing to a certain demographic that they can target with laser focus. And they can sell their product, and they can be successful. And I think that’s what Oculus did as well, with the gaming segment.
So don’t try to be all things to all people?
I think maybe a better way of doing it is maybe, build something that can be all things to all people, but then have a really good idea of which vertical you’re going to focus on. And make sure that all the little nuances that make that product great for that vertical are in the first version.
Lead photo of Kyle Ellicott and Erick Miller by Michael O’Donnell for ReadWrite