Meet the tiny startup aiming to take on Apple and Meta with AI smart glasses

Innovation

Brilliant Labs does not suffer from a lack of ambition. This three-person startup is aiming to outmanoeuvre the giants of Silicon Valley in its quest to develop augmented reality glasses for the masses. A tall order? Yes. But Brilliant Labs has the backing of some big-name investors, so don’t write them off just yet.

Singapore’s industrial zone just to the west of its air base is home to a manufacturing plant, where technicians in bunny suits–plastic overalls that prevent contamination–hover over workstations as they carefully craft sophisticated optics. The facility is run by an outfit called Moveon Technologies, which manufactures optical components for a roster of clients that includes the likes of Samsung, Philips and Dyson.

But tucked away in a back corner of that facility is a startup that partnered with Moveon Technologies in the hopes of developing what it says has the potential to be the next big thing in personal computing.

Bobak Tavangar established Brilliant Labs five years ago because he saw the potential in building augmented reality glasses that would integrate AI capabilities into a lightweight design that effectively give users “visual superpowers,” as he likes to put it. And the 35-year-old CEO aims to develop the technology on an open-source platform, so legions of developers will be able to access their code and create new applications for the device.

“It’s the next big leap, not only in terms of what the hardware looks like, but also in terms of the AI side,” Tavangar says. “They can act as your co-pilot or your friendly assistant to help you navigate the world around you.”

Brilliant Labs team

From right to left: Founder and CEO Bobak Tavangar, head engineer Raj Nakarja, head designer Ben Heald.

Brilliant Labs

Brilliant Labs is preparing to roll out the first iteration of their smart glasses within the first quarter of this year, and Tavangar says they’ll initially have the functionality to process natural language commands. Later, he wants the glasses to develop more features, such as visual and audio prompts based on items detected in a user’s immediate surroundings, as well as the ability to adjust the resolution, zoom and color contrast of the real-world view through the glasses.

Tavangar clearly has sky-high ambitions for his glasses, but he’s operating in an industry that still has yet to take off. Despite a decade-long effort by companies with much deeper pockets, the AR space is still a niche market. Google Glass and Microsoft’s HoloLens both failed to gain traction with consumers, so Google stopped selling the latest version of Glass, whereas Microsoft decided to focus on enterprise clients instead.

Brilliant Labs is taking this into account by playing the long game. Tavangar says their rivals “bleed money like it’s no one’s business,” whereas his startup is trying to build on a foundation of profitability.

The funds Tavangar cites are derived from sales of Brilliant Labs’ first product, the Monocle, an AR lens that clips onto a pair of regular glasses. The Monocle has ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion extensions built in, which allow users to ask questions, translate conversations and generate creative images with voice commands. Tavangar and his colleagues are still working out some of the bugs, but the Monocle is a working model that illustrates where Brilliant Labs is heading.

The Monocle was built using open-source software, which has allowed nearly 3,000 developers to program it for a whole range of different uses, from placing names with faces and learning to play musical instruments to helping the hearing impaired to identify sounds. It was even programmed by a group of students at Stanford to give suggestions on things to say when going on a date or interviewing for a job.

Priced at $299, the Monocle has already sold more than 3,000 units since February, when it first came onto the market, but Tavangar was unwilling to disclose exact revenue or profit figures.

The Monocle is an important step in achieving Tavangar’s vision for Brilliant Labs, which has already managed to garner the support of some important backers, such as Adam Cheyer, the cofounder of Siri. Cheyer cites Tavangar’s plan to integrate advanced vision capabilities into AR glasses as one of the reasons he came on board as an investor.

“I haven’t seen anyone else really try to do this,” Cheyer says. “That’s a brilliant take by Brilliant Labs…rather than having specialized headsets only for dealing with computer generated graphics, the ability to literally take vision and apply ocular transformations to give superpowers to people who want to see better, I thought that was very, very nice.”

Brilliant Labs declined to disclose its latest valuation, but the startup did say that it’s managed to raise $6 million from investors that include the likes of Brendan Iribe, cofounder of virtual reality headset maker Oculus VR, Eric Migicovsky, founder of early smartwatch maker Pebble, and Steve Sarowitz, the billionaire founder of payroll company Paylocity. Other backers include early PayPal investor Plug and Play Ventures and venture capital firm Coho Deeptech.

Tavangar first ventured into the AR space back in 2012, after graduating from the University of Cambridge with a master’s degree in management. He was involved in two startups that developed computer vision software with AI for existing hardware platforms, but they both failed to generate sufficient revenue to sustain the businesses. His experience also made him realize that building a successful consumer AR device would requires integrating the hardware with the software.

Afterward, Tavangar landed a job at Apple as its program lead in Shanghai. His work was mostly focused on implementing software in the tech giant’s supply chain, but his ambition of building his own AR device never faded.

Tavangar founded Brilliants Labs in Hong Kong in 2019, and relocated to Singapore last year. Since day one, he has been running the company with only two partners, Stockholm-based head engineer Raj Nakarja and Shanghai-based head designer Ben Heald.

Meanwhile, Brilliant Labs is facing an increasingly crowded field of rivals seeking success where Google and Microsoft have already stumbled. Apple will start sales of its much-anticipated mixed-reality headset, the Vision Pro, on February 2. The device, which melds virtual and augmented reality, carries a hefty asking price of $3,499.

Meta, for its part, started shipping its latest mixed-reality headset in October. The Quest 3’s base model starts at $499, but pundits say it still lacks a killer app.

Also in October, Meta began selling the smart glasses that it co-developed with luxury sunglass maker Ray-Ban. The price of that device is much lower at $299, but it also comes with reduced functionality. The glasses are similar to offerings from Amazon and Snap in that they don’t have AR lenses, instead their functions are limited to taking photos, filming videos, making phone calls and listening to music.

Tavangar wearing the Monocle.

Tavangar wearing the Monocle.

Shanshan Kao/Forbes Asia

Tavangar says the headsets already available to consumers are mostly designed to keep users on a couch or at a desk because they’re “quite large, quite heavy and quite expensive.” Brilliant Labs’ smart glasses are designed for active people who want “their experience of life to be augmented by the power of generative AI.”

Another big concern for Tavangar is data security. He points out that his smart glasses will have the functionality to record whatever the wearers see and do, so common safeguards need to be put into place to protect user data. Brilliant Labs’ policy to address the issue is to keep users’ data off the company’s servers, while also ensuring that it can’t be passed to any third parties, Tavangar says.

The Brilliant Labs CEO predicts that mass adopt of AR is just around the corner. Tavangar says that it’s likely to happen in 2025 because he estimates that developers will have figured out how to make the most out of the technology and built a range of applications for consumers by then.

This article was first published on forbes.com and all figures are in USD.

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