Mira wants to give iPhone owners their first taste of augmented reality

If you’re looking for ways to stop staring at your smartphone screen — especially when friends are over — augmented reality (AR) may be the solution for you. The tech isn’t anywhere near as good as Iron Man’s heads-up display yet, but a new headset from a company called Mira wants to offer social AR experiences for the masses by creating Prism, one of the first headsets that brings augmented reality to the iPhone.

“Although we’re getting so closely connected in the digital world, it actually brings us a lot further apart in the physical world,” Benjamin Taft, co-founder of Mira, told Digital Trends. “That’s simply because the interface to that world is a screen. It forces us to either focus on the screen or focus on the world around us, and you can’t do both at the same time.”

Augmented reality can change that, Taft said, by digitally enhancing the real world.

The Los Angeles-based startup’s Prism headset doesn’t have any tech inside, but it does use the iPhone in a creative way. The headset houses your iPhone and content is reflected from the phone’s display onto hanging glass that sits in front of your eyes. This allows you to see the person sitting in front of you while still viewing augmented reality content. It’s a unique approach, more like Google Glass than a typical mobile virtual reality headset.

The glass is slightly adjustable, making it easier to stow, and the headband can also be tightened or loosened for a more comfortable fit. The smartphone slides in easily, and there’s a snap sound indicating it has been inserted properly. At launch, the Prism will only work with the the iPhone 6, 6S, and 7, but Mira’s creators tell Digital Trends that support for larger iPhone Plus models and smartphones running Google’s Android operating system, are on the roadmap.

The Prism uses the iPhone’s display to reflect “stereoscopic imaging off the lenses into the user’s eye, so they can perceive objects at depth,” Taft said. Basically, it reflects light from the phone screen into your eyes, and utilizes the smartphone’s accelerometer and gyroscope, as well as the camera, for object tracking and environmental understanding.

It looks sleek, and it’s well-built, but there’s no denying the Prism headset looks like giant safety goggles meant to be worn in a laboratory or a construction site. I got to try it on, and while it was comfortable, it felt a little silly to wear — I would never consider wearing it outside my home or the office. The Prism also comes with a controller that’s very similar to the one Google ships with Daydream View.

The setup process of the Prism was a mini-game, where I controlled a rocket ship and got used to the controller by shooting at asteroids. I could move my ship closer and further away, and I rotated in my chair a full 360-degrees to find and destroy all the rocks. The social aspect is easy to discern — the Prism allows you to see other people around you, while also allowing them to see you, and what you’re doing. It’s also easy for another person with a Prism headset to connect to yours and join in on a game, and if you don’t have the headset, all you need is the Mira app to participate with your smartphone’s camera via the Spectator mode.

Mira hopes Prism will bring augmented reality technology to the masses, like how Google introduced VR to a lot of people with Cardboard VR. There’s two key parts Mira believes it needs to be successful — the price of the headset, and content. The Prism will cost $100, and though that’s a lot more money than Google Cardboard, it’s equal to or similar to the prices of mobile VR headsets like Samsung’s Gear VR or Google’s Daydream View.

Mira Prism

Content is also important, and it’s partly why the Mira team is situated in LA. Launch apps will focus on 360-degree content, but ultimately the team is looking to “enable walk-around, room-scale experiences,” Matt Stern, co-founder of Mira, said. Mira is developing some content, but the company is primarily working with third-party studios to create content for Prism owners. AR app developers utilizing Apple’s ARKit will also be able to easily port over their app to work with the Prism, as the Software Development Kit is built in Unity.

Some of the first content we’ll see for the Prism are tabletop games, and the company said it will be making some content partnership announcements at Comic-Con this week.

The Prism is available for pre-orders now, but the headset will ship to developers in August and September. Mira will continue working with developers and content creators throughout the fall, and the Prism will ship to consumers close to the holiday season.