At a press event in April, Telepathy CEO Takahito Iguchi enthusiastically explained that his computer-augmented eyewear, Telepathy One, could provide anybody with, surprise, "telepathy."
Iguchi played a video that showed fashionable young people wearing the thin piece of metal, which stretches a tiny projection screen across one eye and into the corner of its wearer’s vision. He joked about people needing to "die" to get the product out before Google Glass. But he couldn’t provide answers to any questions about what its interface would look like or how a user would control it.
Most of the models in Telepathy’s marketing materials have hair covering their ears, which makes it look as though the device fits like a pair of sunglasses. Iguchi also kept his hair over his ears for a photo that ran in Wired Magazine with the caption "Heads Up, Google." But when female employees wearing blue scarves to match the Telepathy logo helped reporters try on prototypes, they were much clunkier versions of the slim chrome dummy devices featured in photos. Suddenly the eyewear's defining design feature became obvious: It plugs into its users ears like a pair of ear-bud headphones with sunglass extensions.
It’s an awkward position. The center of balance is ... your ear canal. There's a ring around the back of your head, but, still, Telepathy One flops up and down like a seesaw. Yes, once you get the tiny screen into exactly the right position it’s possible to view video. But making this device feasible, back in April, seemed like a long shot.
Yet, last week, the company announced it had raised $5 million of funding from a publicly traded venture capital fund called Firsthand Technology Value. The VC fund has problems of its own. Earlier this summer, its largest shareholder called for the removal of its founder and portfolio manager, Kevin Landis, after poor performance.
Landis tells Fast Company he learned about Telepathy through a mutual friend who works in Japan, where Telepathy was based before recently relocating to Sunnyvale, California. He argues that it’s a viable competitor to Google Glass. "They’re not trying to be everything in one package," he says of what drew him to the investment. "They’re not saying, 'Okay, Glass, go fetch me a Wikipedia page, and go search for this and go search for that.' It’s more like, 'Just give me something I can share with my friends.'"
According to Landis, the device will allow its wearers to share their perspectives through video feeds. But there's nothing special about the bluetooth technology that connects the wearable camera to a smartphone. Rather, the firm says it was attracted by the design. "The optics are pretty tricky and not too easy for people to do," Landis says, referring to the Telepathy One’s tiny screen, which can be easily ignored when turned off. "They have a big lead there. The elegant design is a big deal."
When asked whether Landis has any basic information about how the device would be controlled, however—arguably half of the measure of any worthwhile design—he says there isn’t a final answer, "but they’re making great progress with that." Nor is there anything to report regarding the product’s interface, though finding a design that can avoid the awkwardness of wearing sunglasses that rest in your ear canals "shouldn’t be too difficult." Iguchi did not respond to similar questions sent to him via email.
To many, a $5 million investment might suggest that Telepathy is more than vaporware. But it doesn't guarantee it'll work in a way people will want to use. And calling it a "Google Glass rival," "a stylish rival to Google Glass," or "the Japanese challenger to Google Glass" is like comparing an acorn to an oak tree.
Lining up a competitor to Google Glass has the tech hype cycle set to high. And Telepathy isn’t the only beneficiary.
"Before Google Glass, everyone said our project was a silly project," Francesco Giartosio, the creator of a so-called Google Glass competitor called Glass Up, told VentureBeat. His product is a display for a smartphone that shows notifications and messages on a glasses lens much like Pebble displays them on a watch. Though it’s fundamentally different from a theoretically independent device like Google Glass, it gained instant credibility from Google’s product. It's the same for products like the Meta Augmented Reality Glasses, Epiphany's video camera glasses, and CastAR gaming glasses. Meanwhile, rumors of Glass competitors from Microsoft, Sony, and Apple are also circulating. But whether they actually materialize or actually compete with Google Glass seems unimportant.
"Part of developing an elegant design is just paying attention to what people are comfortable doing," Landis says, explaining why Telepathy can explain so little about the product its employees are "dying" to launch before Google Glass. "And that, you don’t really know until you put it in people’s hands."
When will that be?
"I don’t want to steal their thunder," he says.
[Images courtesy of Telepathy Inc.]