Image by Ho0n via Flickr
From cell phones to netbooks, the specifications of portable, networked devices are changing rapidly. The iPhone I bought a couple of months ago will be old tech a couple of months hence, when Apple releases a more capable version of hardware and software. People are already speculating about the successor to the Amazon Kindle 2, as well as potential competitors that will employ the same display technology and another device, from Apple, which will expand the iPhone and iPod Touch form to the size of the Kindle. Meanwhile, iPhone knockoffs by other phone makers are coming out, and laptops are shrinking in size and price.
So three distinct devices — smart phones, small laptops, and e-readers — seem to be converging on a common form: a flat computer with a small display, but not too small. And, if reading is a key purpose, not terribly portable, either.
What will the ideal display size be? Probably around the size of a magazine, assuming the resolution is comparable to a slick printed page. Not only is that size ideal for the eyes at just under arm's length away, human hands need a device of a certain size if they are to manipulate controls. My biggest beef with the iPhone is that it's too small to comfortably read for long periods and it's too small to type on (even in landscape mode).
But a magazine-sized device is not terribly convenient if you're on the move. Do people walk around with boom boxes on their shoulders? Not anymore. They wear headphones, which are plugged into an article of clothing, or so it appears. So why will we be walking around holding small or medium-sized visual displays instead of viewing our digital content through glasses?
The New York Times over the weekend addressed this question, and the answer is we might soon be junking all those high-resolution flat screens, maybe even our HDTV displays. The Times profiled the work of a California company called SBG Labs, which has patented what it calls the DigiLens. Says the Times:
The glasses are only slightly larger than many chic pairs of wraparounds, but instead of bearing rhinestones or designer initials, they hold a tiny projector and optics — tucked away in the side of the frame. ...
... The technology uses a process called holographic optics. Light-emitting laser diodes in the projector, stored in the side of the frame, shoot their highly concentrated beams forward to the eyeglass surface. There, computerized, transparent devices called holographic gratings diffract light in ways that ordinary optical components like prisms can’t, steering it to the user’s eyes.
SBG Labs isn't the only outfit working on this. Microsoft has been messing around with it, too, says the Times, and a researcher at the University of Washington is developing something similar that would take the form of contact lenses.
Last week, my curiosity was piqued by speculation about Apple's intentions regarding the growing popularity of netbooks. I thought, why would Apple spend a lot of time working on the netbook/e-reader form when eyewear displays are probably just around the corner? (And what fun Apple designers will have with eyewear, I thought.)
This prompted me to investigate the current state of the art, before the New York Times story came out, by searching Google's patent listings. Those working in this field have been very busy for the past decade, it turns out.
Just last fall, for example, William J. Schonlau of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., patented what he simply calls a "personal viewer":
A personal viewer system includes a head-mounted display linked to an optical generator which receives images from an electronic image source. The head-mounted display includes a scanner which receives light-based optical images from the optical generator and scans these images onto at least one ellipsoid reflector positionable in front of the eye of a user, such that a scanned image is reflected into the eye of the user. Preferably, the at least one ellipsoid reflector has an inner surface that is only partially reflective so as to permit viewing therethrough. The head-mounted display may include a motion orientation sensor for altering the generated image as the user's head is moved.
So now I'm thinking about the whole notion of news presentation. Online today it's not radically different from that of two-dimensional print publications. But when we have high-definition, 3-D displays wrapped around our eyes, and the image is overlaid on what's really in front of us, how will we read, search, draw, communicate? It will be very close to being a holodeck. The future's so bright, we'll have to wear shades.