Organic light-emitting diodes, a new display technology, eliminate the need for backlighting (see “A Bright Future for Displays,” TR April 2001). When charged by electrodes, these organic materials emit their own light. Currently, Motorola has a mobile phone on the market that uses organic diodes developed by Eastman Kodak. And many other big-name corporations are experimenting with the technology as well, including eMagin, IBM’s Almaden Research Center, Uniax and Cambridge Display Technology.
While many companies are struggling with the engineering challenges inherent in small screens, one ingenious solution does away with screens altogether. Microvision, a Bothell, WA, manu-facturer, actually projects an image, pixel by pixel, directly onto the viewer’s retina. The approach is similar to cathode-ray projection in a television. But instead of electron beams selectively lighting spots on a screen, light projects onto the retina, illuminating tiny points and creating the illusion of a 43- to 53-centimeter screen floating in space at arm’s length. To view a Web page, people using mobile phones equipped with retinal displays might hold the devices close to their eyes, or they might wear goggles with retinal scanning devices built into the temples. The technology is just starting to hit the real world. The Microvision head-mounted prototype “Nomad”-scheduled for market release this fall-creates a clear, see-through image at arm’s length even under the brightest daylight conditions. Eurocontrol, the organization that oversees air traffic control in Western and Eastern Europe, is testing Nomad in a flight control-tower simulator. Freiburg, Germany-based Stryker Leibinger, a manufacturer of surgical instruments, purchased 10 Nomads in late March for clinical evaluation. And the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, is also considering using Nomad in the operating room.
Designing display systems that offer the experience of a full monitor is one thing, but deciding to use them is quite an-other. The sticking point is the social acceptability of wearing headgear that can make someone look like a lost cyborg. Donning such a device “is a very big issue,” according to Robert Steinbugler, manager of the IBM corporate strategic design program. “What you typically find is that a person has to have seen a value for doing that, or seen the idea on someone else before trying it themselves.” Cell-phone users may have made it acceptable to wear an earphone to make calls while walking, but covering an eye like some high-tech pirate might still be considered strange, even in a large city (see “Cyborg Seeks Community,” TR May/June 1999).