It’s a long way from making props for James Bond movies to developing state-of-the art virtual reality goggles. Then again, Ralph Osterhout has had more than three decades to get from Point A to Point VR.
Along the way, he has made diving gear, small submarines and night-vision glasses for the military. He even made a ceramic weapon that President Nixon’s secret service could use on his trip to China, where guns weren’t allowed.
“Crazy stuff like that,” Osterhout said as he recalled his earliest days, getting to know the stand-ins on the set of “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Making working props for Bond films in the 1970s helped launch Osterhout’s career making the impossible gadgets of science fiction into reality.
These days, Osterhout is focused on creating eyewear for use in virtual reality and augmented reality. It was his firm, ODG, that created the design BMW Group used earlier this year to demonstrate how Mini drivers could see around corners using augmented reality.
After all, the head is where all of the senses converge, Osterhout said. Your sight, hearing and smell are there, as is the mouth for communicating with others.
“No one can convince me the future is going to be anywhere but on your head,” Osterhout said at his office, located near the Giants ballpark along the San Francisco waterfront. As he talks about the future, Osterhout gets even more excited, with a youthful enthusiasm that belies his age — he’ll turn 70 in the next couple of weeks.
That said, there are some big challenges that won’t be easy to overcome if VR glasses are going to go from conversation piece into the mainstream. Battery size is correlated with battery life and technology is advancing only about 10 percent per year.
Heat is also an issue. Today’s virtual reality devices overheat in under an hour, often even more quickly. Getting closer to the face means being able to manage that issue.
And then there’s the issue of people getting sick after a couple hours of use. That, Osterhout said, is partly due to improper fit; most are slightly out of alignment, eventually causing nausea and other side effects. The distance between one’s pupils can vary by as much as an inch between people, Osterhout points out, as he launches into a mini lecture on human physiology and its impact on eyewear.
Osterhout spent three years developing high-end virtual reality glasses that work with all kinds of different faces and see things in full stereo without the dizziness that comes with long-term use of slightly misaligned glasses.
“It works flawlessly, but it was an unbelievably difficult thing to do,” Osterhout said.
As for the business, Osterhout sees a lot more opportunity for augmented reality, which mixes virtual and real-world inputs, than he does for pure virtual reality, which he said is limited to gaming.
In a sense, Osterhout has been in the augmented reality space since before the term existed, helping make night-vision goggles for the military and eyewear that can tell divers how long they have been underwater and how much oxygen they have remaining. While Osterhout has been working in the space broadly for a while now, his firm’s focus on augmented reality glasses comes at just the right time. The market for virtual reality (both software and hardware) is expected to generate billions of dollars over the next several years. Osterhout’s company is nearly ready with a consumer version of the glasses it has been selling to businesses for some time now.
The business uses are obvious. Workers can use augmented reality to see product manuals hands-free on a shop floor, while surgeons can overlay medical images over the patient they are operating on. But what has Osterhout excited is the possibilities for the technology for helping ordinary people to have extraordinary memory and access to information thanks to a head-worn display.
“That is going to transform people’s lives,” he said.
Osterhout has been trying to solve tough problems with unique technology for more than three decades. He got his start by hanging around on the set of James Bond films in the ’70s, eventually convincing them to use the working one-man submarine he had developed.
It turned out, though, that making props that get used once on a film set isn’t such a good business. Nor was the commercial market for single-person submarines. Bing Crosby wanted one, as did the CEO of Singapore Airlines, but the market tailed off quickly.
However, Osterhout built a reputation for being able to create interesting underwater vehicles, something that caught the attention of both divers and the military, which laid the groundwork for two markets he would serve with all manner of niche gadgets for the next two decades.
Sherry Burr, head of human resources for Osterhout, has known the man for 40 years and says he is unlike anyone she has ever met.
“He’s got just an amazing mind,” Burr said. “He sees needs where nobody else does.”
Nor is he one to be slowed by age.
“As we age we slow down,” Burr said. “I don’t see so much of that in him.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.