IN-Q-TEL HAS A history of working closely with companies that have commercial success providing consumer products while developing innovations with military applications. The investment fund, for instance, backed a skin care company with a line of popular beauty products that had created a method for removing biomarkers that could be used for intelligence purposes. AR and VR technology appears to follow the same track, where consumer products are helping fuel the advancement of innovations that can be one day used for the military.
Before founding Looking Glass Factory in 2014, their CEO, Shawn Frayne and then-CTO Alex Hornstein had each run separate pieces of the Ocean Invention Network, an interconnected group of inventor labs. Press coverage in early 2013 described the network as “an indie rock supergroup of the cleantech scene; Haddock Invention, which opened shop in 2006, is on lead guitar, while Mantis Shrimp Invention, opened in Manila (Philippines) by Alex Hornstein in 2012, hits the drums. The Solar Pocket Factory … is their hit single.”
Frayne and Hornstein had both completed bachelors of science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 2000s: Frayne in physics in 2003 and Hornstein in electrical engineering in 2007. Their third partner was Jordan McRae, who finished his B.S. in aerospace engineering at MIT in 2005 (and spent two years working for Lockheed Martin before joining the Ocean Invention Network as CTO of Humdinger Wind Energy under Frayne).
Frayne and Hornstein’s Haddock and Mantis Shrimp labs would collaborate on Solar Pocket Factory, a “coffee-table size machine that makes panels small enough to power pocket-size devices.” As reported by Fast Company, the effort raised $78,000 via Kickstarter in 2012 but by the end of 2013, Frayne and Hornstein had pivoted to purchasing solar panels from a factory in Dongguan, China, adding the ability to control them with a cellphone, then renting them out for $1.50 to $2 per week. They would partner with a utility company in the Philippines as part of a trial on top of 20 homes in the island of Alibijaban. (This last incarnation was called Tiny Pipes.)
While Frayne and Hornstein would move on from the Ocean Invention Network to focus on Looking Glass Factory’s holographic devices in 2014, McRae’s component of the network, Octo23, would continue on until 2017. Octo23 began with a mandate as broad as the Ocean Invention Network’s: “clean energy, clean water, ocean conservation, and robotics.” But it later focused on OCTOtalk, a “proprietary technology to reinvent the diving/snorkelling mask enabling recreational divers and snorkelers to talk underwater” — a product that McRae then repackaged for the military.
McRae’s Mobilus Labs, founded in 2017, produces bone conduction communication technology that would later be combined with Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 in Trimble’s XR10 hardhat and, reportedly, tested by the British Army.
Hornstein ultimately departed Looking Glass in February 2021 — his LinkedIn status remains “tbd” — and both Mobilus and Looking Glass were listed among Time magazine’s “Best Inventions of 2021.”
McRae did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
ONE OF THE loudest voices in the startup scene evangelizing the promise of augmented and virtual reality systems for modernizing the military is Palmer Luckey, who founded the technology startup Anduril Industries after Facebook bought his first company, Oculus VR.
During a Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute interview in December titled “Into the Metaverse,” Luckey claimed Facebook’s rebranding to Meta resulted directly from the company’s 2014 acquisition of his virtual reality headset company. “Facebook paid a lot of money for Oculus — a few billion dollars — all the way back then because they saw that our technology was the key for unlocking the Metaverse,” said Luckey. “In a way, Oculus took over Facebook for the Meta rebranding,” he added.
Anduril has been promoting a relatively restrained approach to military adoption of augmented and virtual reality interfaces that emphasizes its usefulness for training. Its central product is Lattice, an artificial intelligence operating system. “I think soldiers are going to be superheroes who have the power of perfect omniscience over their area of operations, where they know where every enemy is, every friend is, every asset is,” Luckey exclaimed, during a 2018 speech.
Last year, in the Reagan Institute talk on defense issues, Luckey was brimming with excitement. “We’ve gotten some really big contracts with DoD including with the U.S. Air Force on the Advanced Battle Management System,” he said. “We’ve integrated our system as part of life fire exercises where we were tying together naval assets, air assets, ground assets, shooting cruise missiles out of the air with real gun systems on the ground — all command and controlled through a virtual reality interface.”
Just last week, Anduril executive David Goodrich posted on LinkedIn about the possible use of the company’s virtual reality headsets as part of its recent Underwater Autonomous Vehicle partnership with the Royal Australian Navy. The video that prominently plays on the company’s website suggests the use of virtual reality headsets for monitoring a fleet of its tube-launched Altius drones.
Anduril maintains a large team of lobbyists, spending roughly a million dollars a year influencing congressional budgets and Pentagon planners, and last year formed an advisory board filled with former top government officials. The board now boasts former CIA chief strategy officer Constantine Saab, retired Adm. Scott Swift, and Kevin McAleenan, President Donald Trump’s acting secretary of homeland security.
Luckey has received secretive Air Force contracts to develop next-generation artificial intelligence capabilities under the so-called Project Maven initiative, as The Intercept reported. Similar to Google — whose participation as a subcontractor on Maven was confirmed by the Pentagon — there is no known public procurement record of Anduril subcontracting on Maven. While it is unclear whether Anduril was serving as a prime or subcontractor, Google worked underneath Virginia-based staffing firm ECS Federal, which was named as the major Project Maven prime contractor in a heavily redacted report released by the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General in January.
Anduril and Looking Glass share an early investor, Lux Capital co-founder Josh Wolfe. Wolfe has become a prominent advocate of Silicon Valley venture capital playing a more prominent role in the Department of Defense; he even recruited the former head of U.S. Special Operations Command, Tony “T2” Thomas, as a venture partner at the beginning of 2020.
Wolfe has periodically tweeted updates on the progress of Looking Glass’s holographic technology, using a “Star Wars” X-wing fighter as an example in February 2018. The Pentagon’s now-scrapped cloud computing initiative, JEDI, would be unveiled the following month and — according to reporting from ProPublica — the C3PO acronym had been blocked from use in the project.