Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Preview of Tomorrow's Wearable Computers

Preview of Tomorrow's Wearable Computers

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Eyeglasses that overlay data and imagery onto the real world will unlock new kinds of mobile computing

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas isn't just a place to see new products from gadget giants like Samsung and Sony; it's also a place to see small companies with disruptive ideas that become big consumer technologies in the future.

This year, several of the most promising small exhibitors were showing off technology that could free us from having to peer down at our mobile devices—glasses that can overlay digital data onto the world around us.

One of those companies was Lumus Optics, based near Tel Aviv, Israel. It demonstrated prototype glasses that display translucent, almost opaque imagery that fills the wearer's view like a 10-foot-wide TV two feet in front of his face. Ari Grobman, business development manager for Lumus, told Technology Review that his company was working with "a number of top 10 consumer device companies" interested in commercializing the technology. He said nondisclosure agreements prevented him from saying more.

"We have a crazy amount of computing horsepower and bandwidth in our small mobile devices, but you can't get the full utility of that," says Grobman. "This will change that."

In demonstrations, the glasses overlaid video of dancers or of a mocked-up GPS navigation app onto the wearer's vision.

The glasses rely on a computer or phone to provide them with imagery, a link that can be made using Bluetooth. Adding sensors like accelerometers and a camera to the glasses will enable sophisticated apps, says Grobman, such as one that uses facial recognition to call up useful information about people. The technology to enable this is already available. Facebook and Google use facial recognition to help users tag photos, while Israeli company provides a facial recognition service that can be built into other software.

"Once you have it, the community of developers will bring stuff we haven't thought of yet, the same as with touch screens and the iPhone," says Grobman. He guesses that consumer devices will appear in "two years, maybe less."

Vuzix of Rochester, New York, estimates that its augmented-reality technology will reach consumers in a similar time frame. At CES the company displayed a monocular display that will go on sale later in 2012 for $5,000 to $10,000. That first product will be aimed at the military and industry, says Clark Dever, marketing manager for Vuzix, but the company plans to develop a more consumer-friendly version, too.

The industrial version is intended for things like overlaying schematics of a machine onto the vision of a mechanic. "When you call tech support, they can draw guidance in your field of view," says Dever. The lens of a Vuzix display is made from glass etched with waveguides that steer light emitted in the frame to a place where mirrors patterned into the glass direct it to the eye of the wearer. It can also connect with any device that uses Bluetooth.

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