Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The HMD and the fMRI machine

A couple of weeks ago, I returned from the annual meeting of the Vision Sciences Society in Naples, Florida. VSS is an organization of scientists who are interested in the functional aspects of vision. The VSS conference brings together in scientists from a broad range of disciplines including visual psychophysics, neuroscience, computational vision and cognitive psychology.

There is something nice about coming back to a conference year after year in the same location. You already know where to stay, where to eat or not to eat and are free to focus on enjoying the academics, the exhibition and the Florida sun.

Because VSS is primarily focused on academics, the show floor where my company and others exhibited was not often crowded, leaving exhibitors plenty of time to gleam knowledge from the poster sessions as well as chat with other vendors. The VSS show is dominated by eye tracking companies - most of which we've had the pleasure to work with - but HMDs such as the zSight and other (heavier and lower contrast) HMDs were also on display.

The academic crowd is this show is very diverse in their virtual reality experience. It was great meeting existing customers that we've worked with over the years, but just as fun demonstrating the HMD to researchers admitting that they have heard of head mounted displays but never got around to trying one. 

A key part of many vision research projects is to generate visual stimuli. HMDs offer a superb vehicle for doing so, for several reasons:
Arrington Research Eye tracker inside a Sensics zSight
  • The ability to offer stereoscopic stimuli, thus also adding depth perception to studies about motion, color, recognition and more.
  • A good HMD is often immersive, meaning that it can block external distractions and make sure that the subject is focused on the stimuli inside the HMD.
  • The ability to integrate eye tracking inside the HMD.
  • The ability to engage peripheral vision, especially when using an HMD with a panoramic field of view
I had the opportunity to browse the poster session focusing on research involving fMRI. Functional MRI studies put a subject inside an MRI machine and generate certain visual stimuli. The brain function is then measured and analyzed. Some of these projects give scientific confirmation to seemingly obvious results and others open doors to deeper understanding of how people see. For instance, I saw a poster that confirmed that the brain produces different neural responses when presented with pictures of familiar people as opposed to non-familiar people. To me this falls more into the obvious category: if a picture is instantly recognized as familiar, doesn't recognition itself mean that the brain has a different neural response to it?

Some companies on the show such as Cambridge Vision Systems devise clever ways to inject visual stimuli into such a challenging magnetic environment such as an MRI, and even have the ability to do fMRI eye tracking. Really cool stuff. Over the years, we got asked several times of an HMD could be used inside an MRI machine either for research or as distraction to prevent claustrophobia. Unfortunately, our HMDs are not MRI compatible today, though I'm open to ideas on how to make one.

During a typical year, I meet different people that have different uses for HMDs: from training soldiers inside tanks to architecture and industrial design to academic research. The possibilities for using HMDs seem endless, and many people I meet have new and sometimes crazy ideas on what to do (such as the person suggesting HMDs as a way to revive the art of playing an ancient banjo). Regardless, I look forward to returning to VSS next year and learn even more.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Will Microsoft acquire Lumus Optical?

There is a rumor going around that Microsoft is negotiating the acquisition of Lumus Optical. Lumus is a startup company that developed a clever see-through eyewear. The company originally targeted both the professional (e.g. defense) market as well as the consumer market, though it reportedly sold off its defense business to focus on the consumer side. The public specifications of its product show a low-resolution (640x480), narrow field of view (27 degrees) display, but one that could be made to resemble a pair of normal glasses.

Publicly, Lumus has been keeping a very low profile. The most recent press release or news article on its Web site, for instance, is dated some two years ago. If it not for their promotion of the upcoming SID show, an outsider could conclude that Lumus is out of business.

Of course, it may very well be that this rumor is untrue or that the acquisition talks will not come through, but it's a good opportunity to analyze where such an acquisition could fit.

One place where a see-through display could fit is with the Microsoft mobile division as part of the Windows phone initiatives. A classic use case of a Bluetooth-equipped see-through display with a phone is showing the caller ID inside the glasses so that the user does not have to pull out or look down at the phone. With phones become more and more sophisticated, dynamic driving directions have also been discussed.

How much would people be willing to pay for such glasses and what would they cost to make? This has been a classic chicken-and-egg problem for goggle manufacturers, where price depends on quantity and quantity depends on price. If Microsoft were to bring this product to market, they could all but guarantee a large enough quantity to make these economical.

Another possible home for a see-through display ix the XBOX group. If motion sensing (e.g. Wii, Kinect) was the last big thing in gaming, 3D, immersion and freedom of motion could be the next. I find this a bit less likely that mobile because gaming often requires immersion and 27 degrees of FOV, at least for the current product, is far from being immersive.

One way or the other, such an acquisition would be a nice shot in the arm for all the goggle vendors trying to find their way to a mainstream market.

If Microsoft ends up acquiring Lumus, you've heard it first here! If they don't, I just might change the title of this post to "Should Microsoft acquire Lumus".