Lee Fang, Jack Poulson | The Intercept
May 27 2022, 6:00 a.m.
Last summer, Looking Glass Factory, a company based in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, revealed its latest consumer device: a slim, holographic picture frame that turns photos taken on iPhones into 3D displays. Linus Sebastian, an affable YouTube personality behind the immensely popular technology channel Linus Tech Tips, gave his viewers a preview of the technology.
Sebastian praised the Looking Glass Portrait as “freaking awesome,” especially considering the progress the company had made since Sebastian had toured their office two years earlier, after $2.5 million in money from a Kickstarter campaign. “For the price, for the amount of development work, and how niche this thing is, it honestly looks like a pretty compelling value for the right customer,” marveled Sebastian. “Which raises the questions, who is that exactly?”
Sebastian suggested the product would be a perfect fit for those who wanted to “flex” with a novelty piece of artwork or a designer seeking to preview their own work.
But Looking Glass Factory’s other customers went unmentioned in any of the splashy coverage of the new device: the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense. The military was interested in holographic technology, but the price was a potential obstacle. “The high cost of assembling holographic display devices are restraining market growth,” noted International Defense Security & Technology, a trade publication, last year. One of the growing players in the market, IDST added, is Looking Glass Factory.
Looking Glass received $2.54 million of “technology development” funding from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA, from April 2020 to March 2021 and a $50,000 Small Business Innovation Research award from the U.S. Air Force in November 2021 to “revolutionize 3D/virtual reality visualization.”
With a brick and black metal facade, Looking Glass looks, from the outside, like another art studio in New York City, but its connection to the intelligence community is not disclosed on its website or public facing materials. Looking Glass Factory did not respond — in person, by phone, or by email — to requests for comment. In-Q-Tel also did not respond to a request for comment.
Across the various branches of the military and intelligence community, contract records show a rush to jump on holographic display technology, augmented reality, and virtual reality display systems as the latest trend. According to its advocates, augmented reality goggles will allow soldiers to see through buildings and mountains to visualize enemies on the other side of the battlefield, or even serve as the primary interface for pilots of unmanned drones, tanks, or underwater vehicles.
Critics argue that the technology isn’t quite ready for prime time, and that the urgency to adopt it reflects the Pentagon’s penchant for high-priced, high-tech contracts based on the latest fad in warfighting.
“It’s kind of the culture,” said Dan Grazier, a former Marine and now a fellow at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, investigating military waste and abuse. “The Pentagon always wants to find a technological solution, particularly one that can generate contracts and subcontracts spread all over the country.”
“A lot of these fancy electronic systems end up being more of a distraction than they are actually useful in helping soldiers do their jobs,” added Grazier.