The press loves to tout how cinema is coming to the home in the form of massive TV screens. But massive TV screens are expensive, and don’t offer the all-encompassing viewing environment that head-mounted displays offer. On the other hand, head-mounted displays are large, bulky and clunky, and have yet to engage the content-viewing public. Similarly, massive home cinema systems cannot offer cinema-quality sound inexpensively, in the manner that directional technologies now available for headphones can. But directional headphones without an attractive head-mounted display are of limited use. NVIDIA hopes to change this.
At Siggraph this month, David Luebke, NVIDIA’s Senior Director of Research, offered your author a personal demonstration of a new technology that could lead to thin, light, attractive, near-eye displays while still providing viewers with the wide and deep field of view sought for in head-mounted displays. The key word here is THIN. All head-mounted displays must address the optical depth problem introduced when placing a display panel close to human eyes. To produce images that appear further away than an inch in front of one’s nose, a lens of substantial size must be coupled with the display. The overall size of the lens is determined by physics – in simple terms, the physical depth of the lens must be similar in size to the physical circumference of the lens. The result is the large, bulky, and clunky head-mounted gear that is marketed as entertainment systems. The technology Dr. Luebke demonstrated breaks this mold.
Rather than use one large lens coupled with the display, Luebke and fellow researcher Douglas Lanman decided that if they can’t beat physics, then they should put it work to their advantage, and came up with the idea of using multiple lenses in an array. By reducing the circumference of each lens, they correspondingly reduce the depth. A prototype of the concept was developed, which provided a rough but convincing demonstration that the thin array of multiple lenses works in a near-eye application. In the proof-of-concept that I viewed, built using a readily-available display panel, resolution would need to be improved. Luebke figures that’s just a matter of time.
While Google is off running with its transparent personal display named Glass, in its never ending pursuit to push the limits of personal privacy, NVIDIA is moving down a path that could truly enhance smartphones and tablets by turning them into compelling personal entertainment centers.
Unintentionally, this is the second report produced this month pointing to new developments where personal smartphones and tablets would be the core of future entertainment centers. That should be telling enough.