Instead of Google Glass, How About a Tiny Telescope?

As an alternative to the intrusiveness of some wearable computers, researchers present a small tube you hold up to your eye.

Digital devices that take novel forms will lead to new applications.

If you could create a gadget with the benefits of Google Glass—an eye-level display for quick, discreet access to messages, news, and updates—but without the literally in-your-face design, what would it look like?

A prototype display created by researchers at Nokia and several universities is viewed through a tube.

For a group of researchers from Nokia and several universities, it would be a cylinder about the size of a tube of lipstick that you hold up to one eye only when you want to check your Twitter feed or Instagram. When you didn’t want to use it, you might wear it as a pendant or tuck it away in a pocket.

That’s the look of a prototype they built called Loupe, so named because it bears a resemblance to the little magnifying glass that jewelers use to inspect stones. A paper on the device was presented this month at the ACM User Interface Software and Technology Symposium in Honolulu, Hawaii.

While it’s still just a research project, the Loupe presents an intriguing look at how wearable gadgets could be reimagined to make people feel comfortable trotting them out in public. It’s a challenge facing makers of wearable devices, especially head-up displays like Google Glass, which has failed to achieve mainstream appeal and is still not available as a regular consumer product.

With the Loupe, researchers suggest, the obvious act of holding it up to your eye, rather than gazing into the distance as you would with a head-up display, makes it easier to signal to someone that you’re using it. This could make people around you more comfortable, since they know whether or not you’re paying attention to them—a common concern with devices like Google Glass.

“By having a handheld device that is in front of the eye only when it is used, we provide a very strong signal,” says Kent Lyons, a principal research scientist at Yahoo Labs and paper coauthor who conducted the work while working for Nokia. “Just as it is pretty obvious when someone is using their phone, the same is true of Loupe.”

The Loupe prototype is three centimeters wide and eight long, with a circular hole at one end that you look into to see a small, circular floating display. Four rings of copper-colored touch electrodes encircle the device, and an actual jeweler’s loupe is included near one end for manually focusing the image.

A video showing the Loupe in action has a small circular display hovering in the air in front of the viewer, with a Twitter status update in the center ringed by icons for things like Facebook, Gmail, and Instagram. The surface of the prototype can be swiped to do things like seeing different items in a social media feed, Lyons says.

The device includes a proximity sensor to tell when it’s being held in front of your eye, and a magnetometer, gyroscope, and accelerometer help determine its orientation and measure changes so the display can always appear upright to the user. The current version of the Loupe is also tethered to a computer running Android and an Arduino microcontroller.

While much of the current interest in wearable gadgets revolves around smart watches, activity-tracking wristbands, and smart glasses, Lyons suspects that the field will widen over time, and he plans to continue exploring how wearables might take more unique forms and functions.

“There will likely be several different types of devices that will offer different technical capabilities and be useful for different purposes,” he says. “Loupe represents a point somewhere between a phone, a smart watch, and glasses, and there are probably many more devices to be explored.”

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