Future of the Screen: Terminator-Style Augmented-Reality Glasses: "
The most efficient possible display technology would be something that bypasses the eyes altogether and sends information straight to the brain. Sadly, cranial USB ports are still pretty hard to install. The second most efficient possible display technology anyone's devised projects images directly into the eye. The dream of a wearable virtual retinal display, or VRD, has been around for nearly two decades; it's on the horizon, but it's still going to be a while until it gets here.
The idea of VRD was first tossed around at the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Lab back around 1991. Thomas Furness, who'd been working on helmet-based displays for the Air Force in the '80s, and research engineer Joel Kollin were part of the team that put together the initial (and enormous) prototype. The concept was that tiny, ultra-low-power lasers could paint an image onto the human retina by scanning across it at high speed, essentially treating it as a tiny TV screen. If you could assemble a set of microscopic red, blue and green lasers, stick them where they could project onto your eyes, and hook them up to a computer, you could still see whatever you'd normally see, but with three-dimensional, full-color displays of additional information or imagery overlaid on the visible world—an effect called "augmented reality." Think of Arnold Schwarzenegger's sunglasses in Terminator, and you're on the right track.
Prof. Steven Feiner, of Columbia University's computer science department, notes that the potential advantages of retinal displays are energy-efficiency and unobtrusiveness: 'What many of us want is something you're always wearing so that you can experience overlaid stuff, as opposed to having to put something on.' There is clearly some money to be made with augmented reality, and a Seattle-area company called Microvision has been working on commercial applications of the HITLab's VRD concepts since the early '90s. (More recently, the Japanese printer company Brother Industries has been developing a similar technology, which it calls 'retinal imaging display.') The military has paid Microvision to research VRD eyewear for soldiers and pilots, who need to have a lot of information instantly accessible in addition to what's in front of their eyes.
But there are plenty of day-to-day civilian uses for an unobtrusive, full-color "heads-up" display—one that wouldn't require looking away from its users' physical, nonvirtual surroundings. A mobile phone could have a "screen" as large as its user's visual field. Driving directions could appear in front of your eyes while you're looking at the road, even in bright daylight. Cooking wouldn't require shuttling your attention between the stove and a cookbook. Hearing-impaired people could see voice-recognition transcriptions of what people around them were saying. Surgeons could keep watch on their patients' vital signs and medical reference texts without looking away from an operation.
So where are your Terminator shades? In 1992, Furness and Kollin claimed that it would be at least five years until full-on VRD was a reality, and it's been considerably more than that. One problem is that people's eyes don't stand still—in practice, projecting an image onto a retina is like trying to project a movie onto a moving screen. Another is that, while the wearable part of the system may be small, the gear that needs to be hooked up to it is still gigantic; if it's not portable, it's not very useful.
Still, Dr. Bruce H. Thomas, the director of the Wearable Computer Lab at the University of South Australia, believes that "in the near future we might actually see head-mounted displays become consumer products because of iPods—a legitimate video delivery unit that lots of people carry around with them." In the meantime, primitive VRD has begun to appear in the real world. Microvision released the Nomad Expert Technician System in 2004. (It cost $4,000 a unit and only projected images in red; Honda ordered some for their training centers, but the NETS never caught on, and was discontinued by 2006.) And Brother announced last year that it was hoping to make their retinal imaging display device commercially available sometime in 2010. Maybe by then it'll be small enough for a non-Schwarzenegger-sized person to carry around.
Ars Technica reports: A series of technical breakthroughs has led to myriad new ways to look what used to be peripheral — today there is a new display technology for a every possible use, and a possible use for new every display technology.