Kopin (NASDAQ: KOPN) is one of the most important companies in Augmented Reality that no one has ever heard of. Founded by materials scientist John Fan in 1985, Kopin spun off from the MIT Lincoln Lab, where Fan had been working on nanotechnologies. Kopin went on to make nano-transistors used by half the smartphones in the world. The company sold its billion dollar transistor business in 2009 and today focuses exclusively on wearables. Kopin’s market cap on Friday, February 9 was 218.48 million. Their journey has been an interesting one.
Kopin Founder and CEO John Fan has focused the company on wearable computing.
Fan worked on solar cells and nano-engineered materials for the military at MIT in the 70s and 80s. In the 90s, Kopin received $50M from DARPA to develop micro LCDs with very high pixel density to enable wearable computers for soldiers. Since then, Kopin has become the leading supplier for AR HMDs for military applications, including those used in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, for which Kopin provides microdisplays. Their clients include not only defense contractors like Rockwell Collins, Elbit, Thales and DRS, but also enterprise partners (Vuzix, Google, Fujitsu, Lenovo New Vision, and RealWear) and consumer (Intel/Recon, Garmin, and more).
Kopin makes the optical system for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Last year, Kopin supplied display modules for firefighter helmets to Scott Safety, a 3M company. Firemen use this to see thermal images such as hotspots, even through smoke. Speaking of these enterprise wearables at AR in Action (ARiA) at MIT two weeks ago, Kopin’s CEO John Fans said “All these helmets are pretty ugly, heavy, and uncomfortable. Firefighters will only wear it during a mission. They take it off the minute it’s finished. You got to understand that, if you want to do a mass adoption, you don’t want to wear something like that. They’re not going to use it unless it’s to save a life.”
Scott Safety’s new firefighter’s helmet with heat-sensing optics from Kopin quickly sold out.
At CES in January, Kopin unveiled the first consumer AR product it is taking to the consumer market, the SOLOS smart glasses, specifically made for cyclists and runners. The microdisplay projects content from the phone into users’ field of view.
A tactile interface on the glasses coupled with Voice enabled control for hands-free access provides the interface.Fan said, “We started with the sunglasses that people are already using for cycling or running. We then added our technology to it. We wanted to ensure it looks good, and is light, very light, so you don’t think about having them on. At $499, the price is right, so people are willing to pay for it. And there’s a clear use case that makes something they are already doing better, augmented.”
Model showing off Kopin’s SOLOS AR sports glasses, on sale this spring.
SOLOS features Kopin’s most advanced Pupil display optics, which enable a ‘heads-up’ see-through experience, enabling athletes to safely access their data in real-time. SOLOS has new audio features including voice control, phone calls, listening to music and group chat communication. Featuring a lightweight and elegant design, SOLOS provides the necessary tools in a seamless experience to enable cyclists, runners and triathletes to reach their full athletic potential.
Ernesto Martinez, Program Manager, Kopin SOLOS, presenting at ARiiA at MIT on January 17, 2018.
“The first generation of SOLOS was designed with feedback from Team USA Cycling athletes, and so we used these insights along with those of an entire community of early adopter athletes, including runners, for our new generation that now encompasses both sports,” said Ernesto Martinez, program head for SOLOS. “As experienced athletes know, when you look down at your watch or bike computer, your form suffers; you slow down and this affects your finishing times. Add to this taking the time to scroll through features on your smartwatch, bike computer or music device, and those seconds start to make the difference between an average performance or your personal best. SOLOS lets you stay focused on the road and on your performance.” Martinez graduated with a doctoral degree from MIT Media Lab three years ago and a bioengineering postdoc at Harvard to lead Kopin to the consumer market.
“Kopin has been creating augmented reality technology since long before the term even existed, and providing that technology to military, enterprise, consumer markets through our partners. We’ve learned many lessons over the past few decades,” explained Fan, “and applied them to the SOLOS.
One of Kopin’s CEO John Fan’s “Five Rules for Doing AR right” is to present the consumer with a light, fashionable product that enhances an activity they are already doing.
The next generation of SOLOS Smart Glasses lets cyclists and runners view their real-time performance metrics without having to glance down at their phones or fitness trackers. The glasses also let you listen to music and — if you’re exercising with other people — communicate with the rest of your group. They’ll be available in Q2 of 2018 for $499.