Sunday, February 20, 2011

Where Is The Cool Video Eyewear?

The cell phone is increasingly becoming the center of our digital universe: we use it not only to communicate with one another, but also to surf the web and consume audio and, increasingly, video media.  We appear to be accepting and working around its inherent physical limitations: screen size and poor audio.  But do we have to?

Even a few decades ago, researchers played with the notion of head-mounted displays (HMD) - displays that were mounted on the head (initially via ugly helmets, later with less bulky visors/glasses) and which could project images directly in front of its user's eyes.  Despite gigantic leaps in miniaturization elsewhere in the electronic industry, HMDs seemed to have never come into vogue.  I have always wondered why - because the idea, to me, is the path to the cell phone's future!

Imagine wearing a cool set of shades which wirelessly communicate (wireless HDMI, anyone?) with the cellphone in your pocket to provide either an augmented- or totally virtual-reality to your eyes - at an eye-popping resolution that could never be attained within the tiny physical dimensions of a cell phone screen.

One company, Vuzix, has been selling pretty good looking eyewear for a few years.  But it doesn't seem like it's terribly successful at it - the glasses haven't progressed much from when I last looked at them 5 years ago: the resolution has become reasonably acceptable (their high-end model provides 1024x768), but it still relies on unsightly wires to communicate with its video/audio source.  Has the industry progressed so little because of lack of demand?  Do people think such eyewear would just look too geeky or do they simply not see the potential?

Have you guys ever seen Layar?  It's an augmented reality application that I first encountered a couple years ago - it's pretty amazing: it uses your cell phone's built-in GPS and camera to show you, through the cell phone's screen a reality that has been "enhanced" with the information you'd like to see.  For example, one day I was standing in the middle of a street in Philadelphia when my daughter whined about being hungry.  I took out my iPhone and brought up the Layar application and asked it point out restaurants around me.  I simply held up the phone and looked at the screen.  As I swept in a 360-circle, the street scene in the phone showed little bubbles indicating where the restaurants were.  Very cool.  Layar can be configured with all sorts of location-based information.

Now imagine how cool it would be if you didn't have to pull out your cell phone?  If you were wearing glasses that always superimposed interesting information (where you configure what's interesting) in your field of view?  Initially, this could be Layar-style location-based information.  But in the not-to-distant future, this information could include facial recognition (no more embarrassing silence because you forgot the name of the person in front of you).  This is not science fiction stuff we're talking about - the technology is all there (the iPhoto application on the Mac can already go through my photo collection and connect it to previously identified faces).

I just wonder when someone will come up with the eyewear to enable all of this.

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