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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.
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).
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.
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.
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.