Tuesday, December 6, 2011

HMDs are mindless - a monitor on your head

My company makes VR goggles (professionally called: HMDs), so when I say that HMDs are mindless (or stupid or unintelligent or dumb), it is with a somewhat heavy heart.

After all, HMDs are sophisticated devices. To build one, you need to understand optics, electronics, ergonomics, mechanical design and system engineering. You need to balance features with field of view with weight and comfort. HMDs are indeed sophisticated, but nevertheless mindless.

I call HMDs mindless because they are not much more than a fancy monitor on your head. Like a monitor, you need to connect an external video source: a computer, MP4 player, phone or tablet, to provide a signal to be viewed. If the video signal is provided by a cable, it limits your mobility. If it provided via a wireless video link, it cuts the cable but still provides limits on your distance from the video source.

The passive nature of HMDs is not just because it's a 'monitor on your head'. Unless you are content with using the HMD as a media viewer, you will want to interact somehow with the content and with the HMD. In today's products, you might have some push buttons on the HMD and you usually have a head orientation tracker than can let the application know where you are looking. This is a decent start, but most of the user interface experience - selecting menus, interacting with content, moving 3D objects around, still relies on external devices: a joystick, a mouse, a data glove and others. By the way, many wireless video links don't have the ability to send head tracking information back to the video source.

Sure, this is fine for some applications. Military training and simulation applications are sometimes OK with having the soldier being trained carry a computer on his back. Stationary applications (a tank trainer) or those relying on lots of peripheral equipment (such as an academic research project measuring brain activity) can greatly benefit from today's HMDs, but is this enough for widespread use?

The promise of HMDs was to be able to take 3D content anywhere and interact with it in a useful way. Though more complex, it is just like how the iPod allowed us to take our music library with us anywhere and sufficiently interact with it to be useful. I don't think today's HMDs are fulfilling this promise for a broad-enough market.

Something needs to be done about it.


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