Head-Mounted Displays: From Cyborgs to Google Glass

Head-mounted displays (HMDs) are probably the most prominent symbol of wearable computing. When thinking about wearables, most people immediately come up with images of cyborgs wearing fancy, futuristic data glasses. Interestingly though, of all the concepts that have driven wearable computing over the last decade, HMDs are the least practicable and commercially least exploited.  Thus, the notion of wearable computers as computing devices that are always on, always connected, and can be used in virtually any situation, has very much been achieved by modern smart phones. Likewise, all sorts of on body sensing devices are also rapidly growing in popularity. HMDs on the other hand remain an exotic niche product. Many companies have tried, including some big players. From entertainment giants (like Sony Glasstron), and optical technology leaders (various Zeiss displays), to start-ups and university spinoffs (Microoptical), many products disappeared almost immediately or ended up in highly specialized niches (mostly military).

The big question is: will this latest effort, Google Glass, be any different? I believe the answer is yes, for two reasons.

First, and in my opinion the less relevant reason, there is the technological evolution. For many years developers of HMDs have been struggling with a variety of technical limitations that reduced image quality, made them bulky, and power hungry.  For this reason early HMDs had Cathode Ray Tubes, for instance, which were impossible to miniaturize properly without drawbacks in image quality. Later, driver electronics and production issues were crucial technological obstacles.

Three generations of head-mounted displays (left, Private Eye,mid 90s, Microoptical, mid/early 2000, and the current Google Glass) shown off by Professor Thad Starner from Georgia Tech, one of very few people, to have worn a head mounted display throughout the last 20 years.
Three generations of head-mounted displays (left, Private Eye,mid 90s, Microoptical, mid/early 2000, and the current Google Glass) shown off by Professor Thad Starner from Georgia Tech, one of very few people, to have worn a head mounted display throughout the last 20 years.

Today, most technological obstacles have been overcome. However, while technological feasibility is obviously a necessary condition for success, it is by far not sufficient. Having something permanently mounted in front of ones eye is a huge psychological and social hurdle, no matter how small and unobtrusive it may be.  The consequence is, consumers need a very good reason to use these devices. In the long run public attitudes generally need to change to make HMDs socially acceptable.

What makes Google Glass special is the fact that it has been designed and carefully marketed to address those concerns. Since its announcement almost one year ago, it was constantly in the media but not available for purchase. The first bunch of devices, which had been distributed among celebrities, transformed it from a nerdy to a hip and a desirable accessory.

Furthermore, Google Glass is not primarily an HMD. Instead, it’s an integrated system focused on providing the user with a unique experience and functionalities that no other product can facilitate. Google Glass has a fairly small and simple display that is not meant to be used as a primary output device for other systems. It’s a rather small computer with WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, an integrated touchpad, the ability to access the Internet, GPS, complex sensors, a camera, and voice recognition. Google Glass is built around the concept of “quick micro-interactions”, as Google refers to it. The idea is to enable people to access information, take photos, videos, or notes in situations where taking out a smartphone, unlocking it, and starting the required app may be too much effort. Ever thought about snapping a quick spontaneous video while skateboarding or jogging? Ever wanted to look up information on someone you were talking to without him or her noticing? No? You think it sounds useless and geeky? Then probably you never thought that checking your email or the latest football score while waiting for an elevator is something an average person would want to do… Yet, this is exactly what most people are using their smart phones for.

The basic concept underlying the quick micro-interactions idea is the “two seconds rule”. It says that anything that takes you more than two seconds or longer to accomplish, needs a good reason to be done. Anything that takes significantly less you will do without a second thought. Checking something on a smart phone or using a smart phone to take a picture takes much longer than two seconds. Google Glass on the other hand aims to allow you to do this in much shorter time.

Clearly, there are many factors that will determine if the concept will be successful or not. Privacy is an important issue; some bars in Silicon Valley (where most Glass devices are currently in use) are already posting “no Glass” signs. General weariness of the digital world, which increasingly invades our daily lives and emerging skepticism towards instant availability and reachability, may be another. Finally people may just decide that the additional functionality is just not worth the money and the hassle.

As for myself, I am anxiously waiting to get my hands on one of the devices. Call me a nerd if you want 😉 .

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