Augmented Reality / Head Mounted Displays (Part 1 Real or Not?)

Augmented Reality (AR) Head Mounted Displays (HMD) [aka Near Eye Displays,  Wearable Computing, and other many other names] has gotten a big boost in the public mindset with the Feb. 22, 2012 New York Times (NYT) article/leak about Google Glasses with Android.    The NYT article result in a flurry of commentary on the web and television (Google search “Google Glasses Augmented Reality“).  Reportedly Google Glasses will be available in very limited/test market release later in 2012 with a price between $250 and $600 (US).

Augmented Reality (AR) is the concept of combining computer information with the real world.   Head Mounted Displays (HMD) is any display device that in some way attached to the head (including the eye, such as a contact lens).   You can have AR on say a cell phone with a camera where computer information is put on top of the video you see without a HMD.  Similarly you can have an HMD that is only a display device without any AR capability.   But often AR and HMD are combined together and this series of articles is mostly going to be talking about the combined use of AR and HMD.

Some History

Augmented reality/HMDs have found their way into many films as a plot element and this has to some degree already primed the public’s interest.   It turns out it is much easier to make it work in the movies than in real life.  Attempts at augmented reality go back at least as far as the 1960’s.   Below is a montage of just a few of the over 100 attempts at making a head mount display which range from lab experiments to many failed product in the market (they failed so badly that most people don’t even know they existed).

The Airplane Test

So far HMDs have failed what I call the “I don’t see them on airplanes test.”  If there is anyplace you should see HMDs today, it would be by people sitting on airplanes, but have you ever seen someone using one on an airplane?  Why I consider this as a “metric” is that the people who regularly fly are typically middle to upper middle class, are more into small electronic gadgets (just look at what they sell in the on-board catalogs), and the environment stilling on an airplane is one that you would think would be ideal for a HMD.

Back when the iPad came out, you could tell that they were taking off just by the number iPads you saw people using on airplanes (mostly to watch movies).  Interestingly, I have seen HMDs sold in Best Buy vending machines at airports, but I have never seen one “in the wild” on an airplane.   The other place I would have expected to see HMDs is on the Tokyo subways and trains, but I have not see them there either.  One has to conclude that the “use model” for the iPad works in a way that it does not for a HMD.

Augmented Reality (AR)Topics

There are so many topics/issues with Augment Reality Glasses (or which every name you prefer) that there is too much to cover in just one blog post.   In terms of implementation are the technical issues with the display devices and optics, the physical human factor issues like size and weight (and does it cause nausea), and the user interface or use-model issues and feature set (including wireless connectivity).   Then there are a whole number of social/political/legal issues  such as privacy, safety (distractive driving/walking) user tracking, advertisements, etc.   AR is a very BIG topic.

Making a practical Augmented Reality HMD is deceptively difficult.  It is a daunting task to make an HMD device that fits, is light enough to wear, small enough to go with you, produces an acceptable image, and doesn’t cost too much.  And making a display that works and is cost effective is really only the starting point, the rest of the problem is making one that is useful for a variety of applications from watching movies to real time head-up displays.

There are a number of user interface problems related to the fact that a HMD is in some way strapped to your head/eye that make is “not work right” (acts unnaturally)  in terms of human interfaces.    These human interface issues are probably going to be a bigger problem than the physical design of the display devices themselves.   Making a HMD  that “works” and is cost effective is only the starting point.

Will Google Glasses succeed where others failed?

The answer is likely that they will not have a big success with their first device even if it is a big improvement on past efforts.  Even the rumors state it is a “test market” type device meaning that even Google is looking more to learn from the experience than sell a lot of units.   I’m sure Google has many smart people on the device, but sometimes the problem is bigger than even the smartest people can solve.

The idea of a display device that can appear/disappear at will is in compelling to many people and why it keeps being tried both in the movies and television as a plot element and by companies trying to build products.  My sense is that we are still at least a few more technology turns of the screw away from the concept becoming an everyday device.   In future articles I plan on discussing both the technical and user-interface challenges with HMDs.

Karl Guttag
Karl Guttag
Articles: 244


  1. I totally agree with your “airplane ” test… I am an OLED fan ,
    expressly , an Emagin fan .. Often times the board has discussions about
    which company has the lead in HMD’s .. what are the markets for such . .
    and so on .
    I always counter with an airplane and a water cooler test … We don’t
    see them on airplanes and they should be huge for such .. my guess is
    that when ready , the airlines will offer each seat with and HMD to
    use on whatever device someone has .. but we don’t see’em yet ,
    so no company is in the lead ..
    Water cooler .. when you go to work,school , many social functions ,
    do you hear chatter about hmd’s ? maybe , in the manner of
    oculus sickness , but who says “wow , you should see the latest thing
    that i have” ..
    OLED , HMD’s are still in their infancies, probably still n the
    womb .. that will change dramatically and soon .. garce

    • Are you a Chicago Cub’s Fan (as in “Wait ’til next year”). eMagin was formed in 1993 or about 22 YEARs ago, they are a 22 year old “infant” and about a year older than Microvision another company that will be successful “next year” or “soon” (maybe measured a geological time scale).

      Lost in the back and forth of the who’s display is going to “win” the socket (I agree that at least for now it looks to be Himax) are all the real issues.

      My “airplane test” if you think of it is biased heavily in favor of HMD. I mean you are constrained to being in a chair for perhaps hours on end. The people on the plane on average are above income people and more prone to buying gadgets and anything to make the time pass on a plane. You don’t need to see around there is often not enough room to open a laptop. I even saw a Best Buy Kiosk at the airport with an HMD. But within a few weeks of iPad coming out, the planes were full of them and I have yet to see anyone use an HMD on the plane.

      The same goes for Tokyo trains; I spent about a week a year in Japan, mostly in and around Tokyo, for 4 years and never saw an HMD on the trains. If there was ever a market for a “hands free” display it has to be on the long commutes they take some or all of which may be done standing up.

      Guess what, people voted with their pocketbooks and bought smartphones, tablets, and phablets (large phones/small tablets).

      The problems with HMDs are more deeply rooted in the way human vision works, human factors (long list of issues including fit/comfort and nausea/disorientation) ), how user’s can interact with the device.

      • Yes sir .. i have exhausted myself trying to convince others that
        Emagin is not (yet) a mfg outfit .. this whole thing is actual science .. and evolutionary ..
        A problem the many in the investment community have is that when they
        see new products .. it’s always presented as a couple of guys in a
        garage get and idea and a few months later , rolling in dough …
        I still believe , that someday , every screen on the planet will
        be OLED , and the problems with HMD viewing will be overcome ..
        here’s a funny >> the Oculus thingamajig would probably not cause
        nausea , IF , there was a “viewing seat”, that would vibrate and
        also have movement to coordinate what is being viewed , it probably
        would overcome this … at a steep cost .. LOL ..
        In addition to nausea , i have to wonder what the effects would be
        for someone with epilepsy or other condition that causes seizures ..
        later .. garce

  2. […] In the past 25 years, many companies have introduced headsets with increasingly better displays. According to some reports, the installed base of VR headsets will be ~25 million units in 2023. Yet I have never seen anyone on an airplane or a train wear a head-mounted display. I first wrote about this issue in 2012 in an article on the then-new Google Glass with what I called “The Airplane… […]

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