The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Screens

5/16/08Follow @wroush

Liquid-crystal displays are getting bigger by the minute. These days, you can buy a huge 58-inch wide-screen LCD HDTV for under $3,000. Heck, at that price, you could buy 64 of them and hire Los Gatos, CA-based 9X Media to assemble them into a video wall large enough to hold its own in Times Square.

But at the same time, interestingly enough, LCDs are also getting smaller. In Westborough, MA, there’s a company called Kopin making LCD screens that are much smaller than the proverbial postage stamp. Kopin’s VGA CyberDisplay, which has a resolution of 640×480 pixels, measures only 0.44 inches diagonally—about the size of a fingernail.

MyVu Crystal Personal Media ViewerIt turns out that’s small enough to mount a pair of the displays inside the temples of an eyeglass frame. And that’s exactly what Westwood, MA-based MyVu has done with the MyVu Crystal, a wearable display that goes on sale next Tuesday. Kopin’s VGA-resolution screens give the Crystal, which is designed to be plugged into video players such as Apple’s iPod and iPod nano and Microsoft’s Zune, four times the resolution of MyVu’s previous products. And they give MyVu a gadget that competes directly with the other VGA wearable display on the market, the Vuzix iWear AV920.

But the MyVu Crystal has a big advantage over devices from Vuzix and other video eyewear makers. These aren’t the kind of wrap-around goggles that immerse you in your own personal home theater, cutting you off from the world. Instead, an ingenious system of mirrors and lenses puts the video image in the center of your field of view, while leaving windows open on either side—meaning you can still see what’s around you while you’re watching that I Dream of Jeannie rerun you downloaded from iTunes.

The author dons MyVu’s deviceI’ve been testing the MyVu Crystal this week, and although I wouldn’t advise you to walk down a busy street while wearing the device (for both safety and fashion reasons), you can easily see enough through the amber windows to realize that somebody is standing in front of you. (They’re probably waiting for an answer to the question you didn’t hear thanks to the Crystal’s noise-blocking earbuds.)

Now, why would you need video eyewear in the first place—especially when the Crystal, at $299, will cost you more than even a top-of-the-line iPod or Zune? You definitely aren’t going to buy a MyVu unit as a style accessory. While the company’s designers have done as much as they can to gussy up the device in shiny black, chrome, and amber plastic, it’s still as geeky-looking as Geordi Laforge’s visor from Star Trek: The Next Generation. And you’ll get better picture quality, and far less eye strain, from watching your TV, computer, or portable DVD player.

But I can imagine at least one scenario where video eyeglasses would be useful: when you want to watch something without disturbing the people around you—and/or without letting them see what you’re watching, such as when you’re on a plane or at a boring conference. And if you’re in that situation, the MyVu Crystal has a lot to recommend it. The effective viewing area of the Crystal’s screen is surprisingly large. The experience is about the same as looking at a 22-inch computer monitor from about four feet away, or looking at the 3.5-inch screen of an Apple iPhone from about a foot away. Because the VGA displays inside the Crystal have twice as many pixels as the screen on the iPhone, however, TV shows and movies actually look much sharper on the Crystal than they do on the screen of an iPhone—or a video iPod or a Zune, for that matter.

The MyVu Crystal, with control pendant and iPod Nano (not included)The Crystal’s displays also have excellent color saturation. I tested the device by watching the pilot episode of the Showtime series Dexter—you know, the one where Michael C. Hall plays a Miami PD forensics expert who also happens to be a serial killer—and I can testify that the abundant blood in the show was, in fact, very red.

On the downside, the Crystal is fairly heavy for a device that’s supposed to be worn like a pair of glasses. I think I still have an impression on my nose from the bridge. And if you wear glasses, you’ll need to order custom prescription lenses for the device (although I have glasses for mild nearsightedness and I didn’t have trouble focusing on the screen). Also, the Crystal’s displays aren’t perfect: the colors seem to “seethe” a bit compared to the rock-solid hues of my desktop monitor and my home TV. I don’t know the technical term for this phenomenon, but it may be inevitable with such tiny displays—after all, the individual pixels in the Kopin display are about 1/1000th the size of those in a conventional LCD TV.

Neo’s Shades from The MatrixMy verdict on MyVu? I think the Crystal will appeal to gadget lovers, seeing as it’s one of the first wearable displays with decent resolution, and the see-through windows mean you aren’t rendered inoperable while wearing it. But that’s a limited market. Personally, I’m going to hold out for a Matrix-style neural interface that jacks directly into my optical cortex. That way, if I want to wear shades, I can choose a cool pair like Neo’s.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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