Jul 24 2007

Lumus: Video Eyeglasses of the Future

Digital eyeglasses could let users watch videos, play 3-D games, read e-mail and even receive GPS-assisted guidelines without taking their eyes off the road.

TV glasses and virtual reality goggles have been around for many years. But the early products were heavy, expensive and uncomfortable to use for long periods. In the last few years, lighter and more affordable products have reached the market, but most of them have still been too large and cumbersome to use for prolonged viewing. Aesthetics has also been a factor: Existing products cannot be used discreetly and would not be used by most people outside their homes or offices. (The Geordi La Forge look, from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” isn’t exactly popular.)

Now, Israeli startup Lumus aims to take commercial head-mounted displays to a whole new level. After a long and complex development process, the company is homing in on delivering its first see-through HMD glasses.

Lumus co-founder Yaakov Amitai, a physicist and former fighter pilot, worked for years on developing holographic HMDs for the Israeli military. In 2000, he finally had a breakthrough idea for creating a new type of microdisplay, and after filing a patent, he decided to start his own company to promote the idea.

The Features

Lumus showed me two prototypes: an LCD-based binocular device and an earlier prototype based on a liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS) display. Although the LCoS device had more vivid colors, it was monocular and bulky. Lumus officials say they like to show it with the other prototype to convey the direction they are going to increase brightness for all of their products. The LCD binocular device, which is fairly light and feels like a pair of conventional glasses albeit with wires, is a more mature product. The company says the production model will weigh in at less than 1.7 ounces.

The wires on the prototype are rather thick, and although the first production devices will be wired as well, Lumus says the wires will be thinner and much more flexible.

Another drawback is the lack of sound. Even though Lumus has connected the prototype to an Archos 404 portable media player, there are no earpieces. The commercial version will include them.

Using the glasses is fairly easy. But the prototype requires a small external electronic box between the media player and the glasses (another thing that’s slated to disappear in the commercial product). The viewing quality is pretty good. I didn’t have to wait for my vision to adjust to the microdisplays embedded in the glasses.

As to resolution, Lumus is planning Quarter VGA (320 x 240 pixel) and VGA (640 x 480 pixel) variants. It is also working on a higher-resolution Super VGA version for professional users. Lumus claims its product is comparable to watching a 70-inch screen from 9 feet away, and the displays did present a fairly sizable image.
As with all HMD displays, ambient light is an issue, and using the glasses in broad daylight likely will be a difficult task. But using the Lumus glasses indoors works well. The company demonstrated a clip-on darkening attachment that improves the image, although it diminishes the concept of see-through HMD glasses.

The Possibilities

See-through video displays have many potential applications. According to Lumus, the biggest market for this technology is mobile TV, currently hindered by the small size of cell phone screens. Gaming is another huge potential market, especially with the possibility of implementing 3-D into the glasses by sending slightly different images to each eye.

As to business applications, the advent of augmented reality, the overlaying of information on the display about what the wearer is actually seeing, has potential. The possibilities for doctors and mechanics are readily apparent. But AR also could be useful for providing virtual tours of cities, museums and even manufacturing plants.

Iddo Genuth is the editor of the electronic magazine The Future of Things at www.thefutureofthings.com.