Ina Fried

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Start-Up Gambles Folks Will Wear Special Contacts to Get Their Reality Augmented

There could be a lot of reasons why virtual reality hasn’t taken off, and the bulky glasses may not be the only thing holding back the industry.

But the stuff of science fiction has made a slight tweak and is gaining momentum. These days, the concept has largely morphed into the notion of augmented reality, an evolving category that includes all manner of applications that merge the real world and virtual objects. While there are plenty of phone-based implementations–and even a few popular ones–games requiring special glasses have remained a small niche.

One start-up thinks the main thing wrong with the approach is the glasses themselves–typically bulky headsets that completely block out the real world and, well, make the wearer look like a complete dork. Tiny Innovega has a patent on technology that moves most of the heavy work to a specially equipped contact lens. Though their approach still requires special glasses, they can be light sunglasses, as opposed to the science fiction kind.

“It eliminates the social stigma,” says Innovega CEO Stephen Willey.

Innovega is among a quintet of start-ups taking part in a “launchpad” competition that I will be moderating on Wednesday at the Augmented Reality Event–a two-day industry event that kicks off this morning in Santa Clara, Calif. Other contestants in the pitchfest are Mobilizy, Previznet, Neogence and GravityJack.

While the companies are small, many of them have been at it for some time, including Innovega which has been around since 2008, and Mobilizy, whose Wikitude browser is one of the early location-based augmented reality programs.

Although Innovega hopes one day to get its lenses on the eyes of consumers, for now it has its sights set on niche markets like the defense industry and those with advanced macular degeneration–areas where people are willing to put up with more cost and complexity to get the product’s benefits. The company isn’t counting on reaching production until 2014, and mass consumer adoption is probably further out than that.

In the meantime, the company has development grants from the National Science Foundation and DARPA to build prototypes of its technology. Ultimately, it is looking to partner with contact lens and glasses manufacturers to make the actual units, while it would license the technology.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus