Every year the staff of IEEE Spectrum searches the globe for technology projects that are practical, reasonably well financed, and close enough to market to offer a fair target—before they’re actually commercialized. That way we force ourselves to go out on a limb, thus avoiding the tech journalist’s standard temptation to shoot fish in a barrel. Here is this year’s catch—five projects we think will do well.
Laster Technologies’ Smart Spectacles
These glasses let users dispense with a computer monitor altogether
A decade ago, tech sages predicted that many portable consumer devices would soon be integrated into the mobile phone. For once, the pundits were right: Today, of course, elements of the old PDA, MP3 player, digital camera, portable e-mail, Web browser, and camcorder now live on our smartphones.
Next in line, says a French company, are eyeglasses. When they get smart, we’ll be able to cut our computers loose from monitors, so that the entire package becomes really portable. We’ll also be able to project graphical information onto the world by augmenting reality, as it were.
Later this year, Laster Technologies—based in the Paris suburb of Gif-sur-Yvette—says it will be releasing its first-generation SmartVision spectacles, which will project VGA-resolution (or better) color images on the inside of the glasses. With a smartphone or tablet computer powering it (and connected via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth), SmartVision could, in essence, begin to put a menu bar on reality. Imagine, for instance, doing Minority Report –like information surfing without needing any fancy holographic displays or a head-up GPS interface that sits at the edge of your field of view.
The Laster prototype now on the marketplace provides the first glimpse of the same technology behind Laster’s consumer-market SmartVision eyewear. Reviewed by IEEE Spectrum last year, Pro Mobile is aimed now at industrial and medical applications.
A mechanic performing maintenance or an engineer working on complex wiring can use Pro Mobile to overlay a schematic of the engine or motherboard that stays fixed in space as he moves his head. A mini camera, placed between the eyes, follows his motion; the miniaturized equivalent of a late-1990s PC in the glasses’ thick arm powers the display.
According to Zile Liu, Laster’s CEO and cofounder, this setup costs several thousand euros. He adds that future versions of Pro Mobile and SmartVision will also track a wearer’s movements via accelerometers and GPS technology.
The images projected onto the clear glasses appear to the viewer to be sitting in space a few meters away. The device exploits an optical illusion known as a virtual image, the trick behind mirages and those parabolic mirror woks at science-supply stores. And Liu’s company, which he says has invested more than a million euros in its technology since 2005, has also developed a gesture-based interface—like the Xbox 360’s Kinect.
Liu projects all these products to be available in SmartVision by the end of the year in the 300 to 500 Euro price range.
"Our product will change the paradigm of the computer," says Liu. "Today the size of a PC is due to the size of the screen." Tomorrow, Liu says, a wearable visual interface like SmartVision could eliminate computers’ footprints altogether.
Just how big the "augmented reality" marketplace will get depends on whom you consult. ABI Research expects it to hit US $360 million within three years, and Juniper Research says it’ll get to $1.5 billion within four.
Augmented reality (AR) software companies, like France’s Theoris and Total Immersion, say Laster is making their work realizable.
"Industries are eager for AR," says software developer Laurent Chabin, from Total Immersion. "We’ve been hearing of projects since the 1980s."
"We need hardware manufacturers like Laster," says AR manager Fabrice Malaingre of Theoris. "The capabilities of [Laster’s] AR glasses...are one of the triggering factors that encourage the industry to jump today."