Anyone who has been in IT for the last few decades has seen a steady progression in displays. When I started as a programmer in 1988 I was in the first group of programmers at our company that was issued a terminal.
The programmer’s job was to read a specification, design a program, then code the program on handwritten coding sheets, which were transcribed by (punch card) operators onto punch cards, and fed into the (mainframe) computer.
As n00bs, we were considered quite privileged to get an 80 char wide, green, monochrome terminal, so we could code our program directly into the machine.
Roll forward 28 years and we’ve seen the advent of the PC originally with 14″ monochrome (green or orange) CRT monitors, through various iterations of colour CRT monitors (CGA, VGA, XGA etc), to the introduction of LCD flat panel displays (originally only on laptops), to the LED and OLED screens of today. At some juncture in the last decade, these displays have made their way onto increasingly small devices like phones and watches, and increasingly large devices like TV’s.
And now we’ve come to a nexus. The Head Mounted Display or HMD.
Hardly a new concept I know. But finally the technology is advanced and minituarised enough for reasonable resolution, and portability.
This is crucial technology for Virtual Reality (VR). The general idea is to wear a headset that provides a display to the user (hence the name) and immerse them inside a 360 virtual environment. This could be a ‘real’ environment captured via videography – think 360 degree movie – or a simulated environment that is created by computer graphics – think 360 degree video game.
This year, Oculus Rift, Sony Playstation VR, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear, are all releasing consumer VR HMD’s.
Until now, I’ve only been thinking about use cases for a virtual world. But I’ve been remiss.
The Portability/Usability Dilemma
For at least a decade I’ve been talking about the next logical leap for mobile computing. Split I/O peripherals like screen & keyboard from the device. Here’s why:
When you make a computer mobile there are two tensions:
- For portability you want as small a display as possible. The smaller the display, the smaller & lighter the device. Not to mention less power needed to run the thing, so longer battery life.
- For usability you want as large a display as possible. The larger the display, the more information and insight you can manipulate and present.
The most logical solution is to split the display from the device. Then you can connect to large displays when you need them, and small displays when you’re on the move in a cab, on an aeroplane etc. The battery life of the device will improve significantly, and the size can decrease along with Moore’s Law.
Note: Continuum on the new Windows 10 Mobile devices provides a good compromise here.
So why hasn’t this happened yet? (After all I can’t be the only smart person thinking this through) Probably a couple of reasons:
- Vendors have a vested revenue interest to sell you expensive screens 🙂
- The technology to connect to any display, at least wirelessly, is still pretty nascent
- Most displays are already connected to computers, so not available
But what if you could have a display as large as you want, whilst still portable?
What if the display was physically no larger than a pair of headphones?
Roll in VR glasses.
Both at work and at home I have multiple 24″ monitors that I dock the 12″ laptop, to give me 3 displays. This is not ideal from a power, wasted physical space, and cost perspective. Even so, there are times I simply still do not have enough screen real estate, so on the Mac I run multiple desktops which I can swap to at any time.
Added to this there are some times you simply don’t want to advertise what you’re working on to the world. Confidential reports, company secrets, and the like.
But what if I simply connected to a VR headset, or HMV. Then I could have multiple 80″ monitors arrayed around me. And I could have this single device for all of the places I work: On public transport, in an airline lounge, at home, in the office, in a park.
This would save significant dollars. This would save power. This would redesign offices and homes to more collaborative, functionally aesthetic environments. Sharing a presentation would be a simple as broadcasting to multiple HMD’s.
Of course there’s still a reason why we aren’t all sitting in the office with HMD’s attached to our heads. Quite apart from the social awkwardness, although I suspect that will pass given already people in an open plan office wear noise cancelling headphones to avoid being interrupted.
No, the biggest challenges right now include:
- The artificiality of the display on our eyes can cause fatigue and even nausea
- The weight of HMD’s could cause head, neck, and shoulder injuries with long use
- The resolution of the HMD’s is still not quite there yet.
The Avegant Glyph
Today I saw a new HMD, apparently released last year, but updated for this year’s Consumer Electronics Show for the consumer market.
This uses ‘micromirrors’ to reflect light onto the retina in much the same way we actually see reflected light in the real world. This:
- Removes the fatigue and nausea issue.
- Makes the device much lighter than competitive devices, and
- Totally removes the resolution issue because of the different display technology
In short, this could be the device, or the beginning of such devices that could replace displays in the workplace.
This isn’t just about the new things you could do, this is about replacing the old.
It will be interesting to see the first workplace that replaces monitors with HMD’s
[vimeo 148902651 w=800&h=480]