Saturday, April 21, 2012

Towards substantial price/performance improvements in head trackers

The market for professional virtual reality goggles is not very large. $100M annually? $200M? It's certainly not $1B. Thus, substantial price/performance advancements often come not from advancements in the VR goggles market but rather from large adjacent markets that use similar technology components.

That wasn't too clear, right? Let me give a few examples:
1. One of the reasons that high-performance Android processors are starting to show up inside advanced goggles is that both the operating system and the computing hardware is driven by the much-larger smartphone and tablet market. As a result, the VR market can ride on the coattails of these advancements.
2. One reason that high-resolution micro-displays are so expensive at the moment is that key applications for those outside of VR are military viewfinders, viewfinders for high-end cameras (low-end cameras have low-res displays), and thus a large market that can dramatically improve performance and drive cost down does not currently exist.

The time has come for dramatic price/performance in head tracking sensors used in virtual reality. This is driven by a few trends, but essentially from the fact that these sensors are becoming important to large, adjacent markets:

  • Cell phones and tablets have increasingly sophisticated orientation sensors that are used for navigation and gaming
  • Sensors are making their way into higher-end remote controls (for instance, Roku motion control)
  • Motion trackers are becoming part of Smart TVs
  • Sensors are become cheaper and better.
  • Sensors are being noticed on Wall Street (see Invensense)
  • Sensors are being used in cameras to stabilize images
  • Software is being developed to make low-cost sensors perform better, whether by data smoothing, higher-level gesture recognition or more
Expect to see this trickle down into goggles and get more performance for less money.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

3D in-car navigation is finally here

Driving simulators have been around for quite some time, and some of them use head-mounted displays. For instance, a few years ago, my company provided a high-end HMD to Renault, the French car company, exactly for that purpose.

But the use of 3D for live in-car navigation has been absent. Until now.

By placing two synchronized GPS devices with polarizing face plates, and using 3D glasses, it is now possible to navigate in 3D.

The benefits are very significant as 3D adds another dimension to information displays. For instance, buildings in the GPS screen cap "pop out of the screen". Congested roads can appear thick as opposed to open roads.When properly configured, rear-view cameras can provide the ultimate 3D experience when driving in reverse.

Stay tuned for exciting updates on every April Fool's day.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Carl Zeiss announces curiously-designed Cinemizer OLED

Carl Zeiss of Germany has announced an improvement to their Cinemizer HMD line - the Cinemizer OLED. The company has announced several HMD products in the past, though not all of them seemed to have made it to market.

The product appears lightweight. battery-operated and nicely styled. It includes an option for a degree-of-freedom motion tracker. What I find curious is some of the design decisions made by Zeiss:

  • The optics provide only 30 degree diagonal field of view, which is very narrow. Since field of view is strongly tied to the sense of immersion, and since Zeiss is clearly a leader in optical design, why would the field of view be so narrow?
  • The resolution is very low. Each OLED provides just 870x500 pixels, which compares very unfavorably with other products in this price range. The product advertises that it is compatible with 720p (1280x720) video, but at 870x500 this means that it has to do some down-scaling which would cause loss of fidelity.
  • The IPD (the adjustable distance between the pupils) only covers 59 to 69 mm. Typically, products that strive to fit a wide range of users aim to allow 52 to 72 mm range, so the Cinemizer appears not to be a good fit for a large portion of the population. 
What is the use case for such product? With its low resolution, it would not qualify as a good media viewer (even if you believe in media viewers as good use cases). The motion tracker could point to a potential gaming usage, but the narrow field of view would not provide a compelling sense of immersion.

The videos and demonstrations show an architectural walk-through application. Is it a big enough market to justify a product release from a large company such as Zeiss?

I'd be happy to hear from the Zeiss people on their thoughts, and will report if I learn something new.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

When is a Smart Device Really Smart?

(slightly philosophical)

There is a glut of device categories that have 'smart' in them: smartphones, SmartTV, Smart Camera, and of course, our favorite SmartGoggles

What is it that makes a device Smart?

Quite often, it seems that Smart, in the context of devices, is synonymous to connected. A SmartTV is actually an Internet-enabled TV. Smartphones used to be just integrated phones: camera, organizer, mp3 player, phone and then advanced to being connected to a data network. By itself, does that make them smart? I don't think so.

When we speak about humans, smart is another word for intelligence. We don't say that a person is smart because he is well-connected (lots of friends on Facebook?), but because he is exhibiting intelligence.

I don't think the Stocks application on the iPhone is smart because it just retrieves stock price from a database. One could argue that the Siri application on an iPhone 4 is smart because of its natural language processing capability and seeing ability to understand what you mean with your query.

Going back to goggles, I don't think goggles should be called smart just because they are Internet-enabled. It's the extra layer of intelligence and understanding that makes it smart. Goggles that sense that your head is pointing north are just a sensor. Goggles that sense that you are running require additional intelligence. Goggles that display context-sensitive information based on location, time, calendar, proximity, and more are even smarter.

Monday, January 23, 2012

CES and the promise of falling micro-display prices

One of our takeaway from the recent Consumer Electronics Show was that micro-display prices will be dropping nicely in 2012, which is good news for anyone clamoring for high-quality HMDs at lower costs. As I wrote previously, the cost of micro-displays has a big impact on the final cost of HMDs, so a substantial reduction if costs can allow companies to reduce prices on HMDs in the hope of reaching a broader market.

At CES, both on and off the show floor we saw evidence of micro-display prices coming down, both with new companies offering micro-display solutions, existing companies presenting 720p or higher solutions at affordable costs, or very large companies professing their ability to use large-screen technology to create economical micro-displays.

I believe all of these trends would also create downward price pressure on the established micro-display providers like Kopin/4DD and eMagin, unless they want to focus on higher-end military-type solutions.

At the same time, companies like Sensics are going beyond the traditional "an HMD is a microdisplay plus a lens" paradigm to offer smarter goggles and extra features. This combination of reduced component costs and valuable capabilities should make for a fascinating 2012.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Mindless goggles not going away anytime soon

A reader writes:

You mentioned that goggles of the past were mindless monitors. 

I would love mindless goggles provided that they had head tracking and a decent resolution and viewing angle, a bit like those uber expensive sensics ones. :-)

Will you one day release such a product? I am talking flight sim, racing sim, first person shooters. Sony seems to be the only one with something close at the moment but the field of view does not cover the full 180 degrees. If it did, the resultion would need to improve a lot."

Thank you for the input.

I think mindless goggles are not going away anytime soon, just like flip phones are still around (though their primary market these days are young kids and senior adults). Mindless goggles will most likely continue to be cheaper and offer somewhat of a limited experience. A starter kit, before you upgrade to SmartGoggles?

For one thing, SmartGoggles are not fully commercialized quite yet. Based on the wave of enthusiasm and support, I am sure they will be quite soon.

My company is happy to be mentioned in the same sentence as SONY, and we are glad to be impacting the discussion. Imagine how cool it would be if SONY decided to license SmartGoggles technology and make their media viewer a smart goggle - one with full head and hand tracking, wider field of view, higher resolution, untethered, and an Android processor on board. You could immerse yourself in PlayStation games, or even play them in a limitless and omni-directional tracking area. Or, you could connect to a SONY tablet or XPERIA or VITA and add intelligence, immersion and 3D to all the nice features that already exist on these devices.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

One of my favorite CES exhibits

Back from CES, where my company launched the SmartGoggles to substantial press, partner and customer excitement (see the verge, for instance)

One of my favorite exhibits at CES was the Smart Window by Samsung. It is a large transparent window that allows graphical overlays on top of the see-through pane.

Historically, see-through technology has been pretty much limited to heads-up displays and see-through goggles, all of which are fairly small in size. The Smart Window makes see-through panels that are much larger. If you couple this with some ability to modulate the intensity of light coming through the window (e.g. electronic shades), you can truly see the window of the future.

The micro/macro comparison in displays is interesting. For instance, there is a lot of effort on behalf of large companies to create ever-larger high-definition OLED televisions (Samsung and LG both introduced stunning 55" OLED TVs at the show), but all that innovation has not yet made it into micro-displays. Other than SONY, perhaps the really big companies are not yet convinced there is a very large market for OLED micro-displays. Such commitments would help drive down the cost for micro-displays, and make high-performance goggles substantially more affordable.