Reinventing the future - again and again

Reinventing the future - again and again

5 April 2012 by Chris Edwards

Every few years, someone pops up with a concept model for augmented-reality glasses: spectacles that contain a tiny monitor that either project an image onto the glass like a head-up display or put a virtual screen just in front of an eye. Some of them even work, such as the augmented eyewear first built by Thad Starner when he was at MIT in the late 1990s - declaring "I am the Borg" to one of his colleagues by email at one point using his wearable keypad and display.

There have been projects for the US military through the DARPA programme - after all, thanks to night vision and head-up displays, augmented reality is already, um, a reality. Last decade, microdisplay companies such as MicroOptical popped up with plans to commercialise the displays, but they have not turned into mass-market products yet.

This time around the (re)invention of the augmented-reality spectacles comes courtesy of Google. Starner is one of the team on Project Glass, which has put together the concept designs for products that do many of the things that Starner has now takes for granted having had 15 years of practice with devices such as the 'twiddler', a chording keypad similar in concept to the Microwriter developed in the 1980s. You can see how far back much of this stuff goes.

Maybe it's an idea whose time has come. People now seem more likely than ever to walk into each other in crowded cities as they try to use Google Maps to find their way around as much as using email or Twitter to tell their colleagues where they think they are.

But a big issue in user interfaces is that of the "persistent architecture". The Bluetooth earpiece is the only item of wearable computing that has survived so far and its use seems to have faded since its mini-boom of around five years. Cab drivers still use them, but they seem a lot less popular than they used to be, perhaps because people prefer to use text, email and Facebook to stay in touch rather than the telephone.

The mobile phone has gradually assimilated other functions because it's the one piece of technology that people chose to carry around with them wherever they go. It's interface is clearly imperfect for many of the tasks - navigation in particular. But it's good enough for people to keep using the handheld phone rather than anything else. And the gestures people use with them are good social indicators. You can clearly see when people are looking at a phone, not so with electronic spectacles: are they staring into space, at an image or at you? You still have to a double-take when someone comes along talking - you look for the telltale earpiece to check who they think they are talking to.

Although other elements of wearable computing, such as the chorded keypad could make their way into the mainstream, we could be reinventing the augmented-reality glasses for some time yet.

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    Posted By: Chris Edwards @ 05 April 2012 05:51 PM     General  

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