In the future, young people will be confused by tales of communication devices housed in pockets. They will look at us in disbelief as they whisper a command to a hidden microphone, join a conference call that's auto-translated into an earpiece and displayed on a virtual screen floating in front of their right eye.
By then, there will be no mobile phones; we will, in effect, be the phone, constantly connected.
Bringing this futuristic vision ever closer is wearables maker Kopin Corporation. Its partners include Google, Raytheon, and Intel; it's also the largest US manufacturer of microdisplays for the US military (think: next-gen helmets). Founder and CEO Dr. John C. C. Fan started the company in 1985 with a group of engineers and scientists from MIT, and they hold hundreds of patents in advanced optics and display technologies.
Kopin will be demoing its latest innovations, including the new 2,000-by-2,000 OLED VR headset reference design at Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara this week (May 31-June 2), but Stuart Nixdorff, SVP of Sales and Marketing, gave PCMag got a sneak peek in LA.
Kopin devices sport OLED microdisplays, constructed using a silicon backplane structure, and run Kopin's own Whisper chips.
"Our Whisper chip [recognizes] human-to-machine audio—as opposed to human-to-human—thereby giving you a higher level of control of voice accuracy for machine learning," Nixdorff says. "The chip was developed initially so you could work in loud environments with up to 80 decibels of noise, yet still get rock-solid voice recognition.
"Right now, this chip is being integrated into next-generation smart AR glasses by our partners who are developing concurrent translation functionality. Because with that, you need extreme levels of accuracy."
Aside from its military work, a growing market for Kopin is the "performance wearables" space; it spun out a new brand called Solos, which produces AR cycling glasses (available for pre-order on Indiegogo for $375). I tested a pair (without getting on a bike) and it's a remarkable experience. Visual information projected beyond my right eye, keeping tabs on my vital signs, while a soft voice coming from a microphone in the arm of the glasses gave audio insights on the terrain and other necessary cycling data. All audio/visual data feeds available via the Solos Cycling Glasses can be customized by the rider, depending on the configuration of sensor tracking devices on their body.
"This is just the first-generation Solos product," Nixdorff points out, "where riders can see most of their biometric information: heart rate, distance, travel, sweat monitor sensors, and so on. The whole quantified self can be tracked now. In effect, these AR glasses replace smartwatches."
You can see the benefit here; the last thing you want to do if competing in the Tour de France is look down at your watch. Keep your eye on the prize, and avoid the rider in front.
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The Road Ahead
Kopin also showed off a tantalizing collection of prototypes that won't actually hit store shelves. Instead, (as yet unnamed) partners will incorporate Kopin technology into their products.
The LCD on one device looked significantly sharper and more luminous than other AR-projected imagery I've previously experienced; the colors, in particular, really popped. But what's most impressive is that one can comfortably see the projected screen, which appears to be floating 6 to 10 feet in front of the glasses, as well as through the glass lenses themselves.
This is due to Kopin's display modules and engines using Pupil Optics (under license from Olympus Corporation, which developed them for medical endoscopes). These have a micro aperture size (< 4 mm in height), much smaller than human pupil dimensions (~7 mm), so the multiple images really do coexist, in a seamless, almost invisible effect, not distracting you until you decide to focus in on them.
As we were in downtown LA, I looked up at the tall buildings opposite us while peering through an AR prototype. The video snippet from what looked like a Japanese TV program appeared to be projected on the shiny skyscraper. It was very Bladerunner; the future we were all promised. And it's not too far away, Nixdorff promises.
"Mobile telephony architecture is about to change significantly. As humans we have been completely tethered to our phones, but the new smartwatches just don't have enough visual real estate for the information you need," he says. "At Kopin, we believe the future of wearables centers on the head."
The entire wearables ecosystem is expanding fast to include contextual awareness and virtual assistants that know where you are (GPS), what you've bought (purchase history), intentions (search tracking), and what you need to be briefed on next (calendar entries and scanning emails). Nixdorff is confident Kopin will lead this next leap in AR-enhanced head-mounted devices.
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"I am surrounded by smart PhDs every day so I want a 'superhuman power' of full access fed to me in a seamless environment for a fully connected future. Think about what eye-glasses did for humankind, when things were blurry, you put them on, and suddenly everything was possible. We believe AR smartglasses will have a similarly transforming effect on humans."
Of course the only caveat is that spectacles aren't suitable for everyone. The FDA estimates that about 600,000 people a year in the US get LASIK corrective eye surgery. Dark Jackie O sunnies on the front row at fashion shows aside, if you hang out in the chic-er circles, there are very few glasses-wearing humans these days, as Google found out. So full-face glasses might not succeed on a massively commercial scale.
Hopefully Kopin has other prototypes to address this. Anyone game for bringing back the monocle on a simple silver chain?
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