Through the Looking Glass
By Andrea Orr, Mon Nov 13 00:00:00 GMT 2000

Want to take the computer with you, but can't get the whole screen onto a portable device? Microdisplay technology offers a solution, and mobile phone manufacturers have noticed. Some people in the industry believe microdisplays could become the next hot gadget, with as many as 50 million in circulation within five years.


If the proliferation of cell phones, pagers and palm devices leaves you believing that all high-tech gadgets pushed onto the market become widely adopted, consider microdisplay headsets. A kind of wearable computer that you can put on like a pair of goggles to watch a film or play a video game in private, the headsets have have been available for close to a decade from the likes of Sony Corp, Canon Inc, and several other consumer electronics manufacturers.

Microdisplay headsets incorporate some of the most cutting edge and impressive technology, effectively minimizing and then magnifying an image so you can view an entire 19-inch computer screen on a display about the size of a postage stamp.

Yet not that many people outside of the hard-core geek community have been wowed. Even in confined settings like airplanes where it seems they would be ideal, headsets are pretty scarce.

"These products really haven't gone anywhere," says Chris Chinnock, editor of the Microdisplay Report, which covers the technology.

"For years and years, people have been saying it's about to become a volume market, but the quality of the images are still a problem, and the prices are still too high.

"There also has been a social inhibitor: Do you really want to be seen wearing those goggles?"

Chinnock may be a skeptic, but the strong following his publication receives is testimony to the fact that people have not given up yet on the microdisplay. If quality can be brought up sufficiently and the price -- and weight -- driven down, many believe it won't seem so antisocial anymore to view a computer screen though a pair of goggles.

And, supporters note, you don't necessarily have to wear the display to get all the benefits of a large screen computer in a tiny package. Simply holding it close to one eye for a quick scan works fine also.

Now, with every cell phone maker exploring a good way to deliver the wireless Web, microdisplay technology is increasingly being seen as as the key to enabling a truly mobile Internet. Putting a microdisplay on a cellular phone screen would eliminate the challenge of repackaging Internet content for a tiny window. It would enable you to view the entire screen in one piece.

"I think it's fair to say that all cell phone makers are looking for ways to put a high resolution image into a small form factor," says Rainer Kuhn, director of marketing for Colorado Microdisplay, one of the leaders in microdisplay technology.

Kuhn projects the market for "near-eye microdisplay" products will explode from fewer than 500,000 units today to 12 million to 50 million in the next five years.

He could be right. But you won't get any of those cell phone companies going on the record about the vast promise of microdisplays. More of them today are pushing repackaged Internet content -- that lets you read a word or two at a time.

The truth is that microdisplay technology has vastly improved from the days when headsets were so heavy they were affectionately referred to as "wearable toilet seats." But it is still a little too clunky and too costly to be a sure solution the the challenge of squeezing the entire Internet into a device you can fit into your pocket.

One other substantial problem is that even if the technology is good enough to to display a detailed page of text, today's cell phone infrastructure is still not sufficient to receive such large volumes of data.

Yet, with third generation phones expected on the market in big numbers within two years, there is hope. Some 30 companies including Colorado Microdisplay, DisplayTech, and Display Research Labs are all perfecting their microdisplays in expectation of this new market.

Many of these companies say that even before new wideband CDMA phones come on the market, microdisplays will offer other ways to bring the entire Internet to a compact device. These include lighter versions of the headsets, and devices that look a lot like cell phones but are designed to be held up to the eye instead of the ear.

One company that expects to introduce such products by early next year is Sunnyvale, Calif.-based InViso. InViso makes a device called the eCase, which looks remarkably like a cell phone, and provides a tiny display window that you can view at close range to see the image of an entire 19-inch computer screen. The effect is stunning. No need to scroll around with your cursor to get from one end of the screen to the other. No need to squint.

In fact, since the image reproduced on the microdisplay is created to appear 2.5 feet in the distance, InViso says the device causes even less eyestrain than a regular computer. InViso founder Alfred Hildebrand calls the product an "ergonomic magnifier."

InViso has much bigger plans than just helping consumers access their horoscopes, stock quotes or find the nearest Italian restaurant while they are on the road. Because it has all the storage capacity of a virtual briefcase (hence the name), the eCase can store entire web pages, email attachments, maps, calendars and other information.

The material may be downloaded ahead of time or you can plug the eCase into a mobile phone while in transit for a live Internet connection. Users may navigate with a thumb pad contained on the device, or with "quick information" keys similar to those on WAP-enabled cell phones. Voice commands are another option. InViso hopes to offer a voice-enabled eCase that would let users to reply to their emails in the spoken work.

InViso says the eCase would be ideal for field technicians, emergency response personnel, real estate agents, and other workers who need quick access to sometimes complex information, but aren't in a position to lug around a laptop.

Not surprisingly, InViso has also thought of the possibility of incorporating its technology into cell phones, in a product that would effectively create a full-sized computer and compact-phone in one. It says it is actively pursuing partnerships.

But for now it is pinning its biggest hopes on another new product, its eShades, which vastly improve on the clunky old headsets in a design that looks less like a helmet and more like a pair of extra thick sunglasses. The eShades can be connected to a keyboard so that you can do virtually any kind of computer work while you are in transit.

InViso is positioning the eShades as a way to bring security to working on the go: unlike a laptop computer, you don't have to worry about someone looking over your shoulder. (That may not be the security problem people talk about most, but you do have to wonder about all the internal memos and trade secrets that escape right over peoples shoulders on airplanes and other cramped compartments.).

InViso believes there are a lot of very paranoid people looking for a truly private way to work in public places. It even predicts that soon after it introduces the eShades early next year, it will not be unusual to board a jet and look down at two aisles of commuters shrouded in dark glasses and typing away at connected keyboards. Eventually it says, partnerships with other hardware manufacturers could pave the way for different styles of eShades. A kind of wearable iMac, perhaps.

"Whenever we demonstrate the eShades, for about 90 percent of the people who see them, their first question is, 'Can I be a beta tester?'" Hildebrand says.

Not everyone is sure the eShades will take off, however. Jupiter Communications analyst Billy Pigeon thinks the technology needs to be refined some more, and made even lighter, before it has much of a chance of widespread adoption. Even then, the way the eShades limit your peripheral vision and essentially immerse you in your computer screen could be another potential problem, he says.

Others agree that something like the eCase could be more of a misguided geek fantasy than a practical consumer product. "How natural is it to hold up a phone or an organizer to your eye?" asks one critic.

Unlike WAP-enabled cell phones, whose content can be viewed from a comfortable distance, the eCase needs to be practically up against your eye to be read. One individual who tried out the product said it was such an odd experience, he felt the need to put a pirate patch over his free eye.

The science behind microdisplay technology suggests several other potential problems. Since microdisplays work by magnifying the image, even the smallest defects in the device also get magnified, up to 1,000 times, which could pose a manufacturing challenge. Because the products have not yet been make in large volumes, it is not clear if tiny irregularities that appear during mass manufacturing will send designers back to the drawing board.

Chinnock says it is this list of uncertainties that have kept the cell phone makers pretty mum on the issue of microdisplays.

"They are wrestling with all these issues: Will consumers use the product, will its quality be sufficient? It's just a little early in the ball game to know."

But if these technical problems can be overcome, and if consumers are game, microdisplay technology could refocus the debate over wireless content.

Unlike so many companies that are trying to deliver Internet content one slow word at a time, InViso delivers the entire computer screen in one piece, a sure relief to application developers, who no longer have to change the desktop visual interface.

And, while many wireless companies are delivering Internet content via the spoken word so that mobile consumers don't have to look at a screen at all, InViso says it lets consumers on the go take the whole computer screen with them.

Provided, of course, that they are traveling on public transportation. When you are looking at a computer screen through your eShades or your eCase, it's a little tough to watch the road.

Andrea Orr covers the gamut of technology for TheFeature. She is also a correspondent for Reuters in the Palo Alto, California, bureau.