Archive for February 23, 2015

Desperately Seeking the Next Big Thing – Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) — Part 1

Untitled-2With Microsoft’s big announcement of HoloLens and spending a reported $150 million just for HMD IP from the small Osterhout Design Group, reports of Facebook spending about $2 billion for Oculus Rift, and the mega publicity surrounding Google Glass and the hundreds of millions they have spent, Head Mounted Displays (HMD) are certainly making big news these days.

Most of the articles I have seen pretty much just parrot the company press releases and hype up these as being the next big thing.   Many of the articles have, to say the least, dubious technical content and at worst give misinformation.   My goal is to analyze the technology and much of what I am seeing and hearing does not add up.

The question is whether these are lab experiments with big budgets and companies jumping the gun that are chasing each other or whether HMDs really are going to be big in terms of everyone using them?    Or are the companies just running scared that they might miss the next big thing after cell phones and tablets.   Will they reach numbers rivaling cell phone (or at least a significant fraction)?    Or perhaps is there a “consolation prize market” which for HMDs would be to take significant share of the game market?

Let me get this out-of-the-way:  Yes, I know there is a lot of big money and smart people working on the problem.   The question is whether the problem is bigger than what is solvable?  I know I will hear from all the people with 20/20 hindsight all the successful analogies (often citing Apple) but for every success there many more that failed to catch on in a big way or had minor success and then dived.   As an example consider the investment in artificial intelligence (AI) and related computing in the 1980’s and the Intel iAPX 432 (once upon a time Intel was betting the farm on the 432 to be replacement for the 8086 until the IBM PC took off).    More recently and more directly related, 3-D TV has largely failed.  My point here is that big companies and lots of smart people make the wrong call on future markets all the time; sometimes the problems is bigger than all the smart people and money can solve.

Let me be clear, I am not talking about HMDs used in niche/dedicated markets.  I definitely see uses for HMDs applications where hands-free use is a definite.  A classic example is military applications where a soldier has to keep his hands free, is already wearing a helmet that messes up their hair and they don’t care what they look like, and they spend many hours in training.   There are also uses for HMD in the medical field for doctors as a visual aid and for helping people with impaired vision.  What I am talking about is whether we are on the verge of mass adoption.

Pardon me for being a bit skeptical, but on the technical side I still see some tremendous obstacles to HMD.    As I pointed out on this blog soon after Google Glass was announced http://www.kguttag.com/2012/03/03/augmented-reality-head-mounted-displays-part-1-real-or-not/ HMDs have a very long history of not living up to expectations.

I personally started working on a HMD in 1998 and learned about many of the issues and problems associated with them.    There are the obvious measurable issues like size, weight, fit/comfort and can you wear them with your glasses, display resolution, brightness, ruggedness, storage, and battery life.   Then there are what I call the “social issues” like how geeky it looks, does it mess up a person’s hair, and taking video (a particularly hot topic with Google Glass).   But perhaps the most insidious problems are what I lump into the “user interface” category which include input/control, distraction/safety, nausea/disorientation, and what I loosely refer to “as it just doesn’t work right.”   These issues only just touch on what I sometime joking refer to as “the 101 problems with HMDs.”

A lot is made of the display device itself, be it a transmissive LCD, liquid crystal on silicon (LCOS), OLED, or TI’s DLP.    I have about 16 years of history working on display devices, particularly LCOS, and I know the pro’s and con’s on each one in some detail.   But as it turns out, the display device and its performance is among the least of the issues with HMDs, I had a very good LCOS device way back in 1998.   As with icebergs, the biggest problems are the ones below the surface.

This first article is just to set up the series.  My plan is to go into the various aspects and issue with HMDs trying to be as objective as I can with a bit of technical analysis.    My next article will be on the subject of “One eye, two eyes, transparent or not.”