The Unbundling of “Augmented Reality” — Behold the Bionic Eye

September 13th, 2009, by Giovanni Rodriguez | located in Conversations | No comments yet | trackback

In a story that got a bunch of reporters and bloggers excited this week (check out the post on, Babak Parviz, a professor at the University of Washington, recently wrote about LED and radio-powered contact lenses that could both monitor health and display information over the user’s visual field. The latter functionality — information display — was the bigger story this weeks, exciting the legions of writers who are following each and every advance in “augmented reality.”

In case you haven’t been following the trend story, augmented reality is a set of technologies that enable consumers to digitally display relevant data over the image of an object. Most AR projects and experiments, however, are being conducted on the screens of smartphones. For a great demo, see the video below, by the very hot Netherlands-based AR company, Layar.

The excitement — and hype — that the Parviz article is generating is understandable. While the bundling of various technologies on smartphones — computation, video display, GPS, compass technology, messaging — appear to be driving the adoption of augmented reality, in theory there’s nothing stopping savvy technology vendors from unbundling these technologies and adapting them to the way the body naturally performs in the physical world. The Parviz lens is not the only attempt to unbundle technology. Earlier this year, a team from the MIT Media Lab unveiled a prototype for an AR-like product that enables the consumer to project data on any surface.

On a more theoretical level, just this week Nokia released a demo for a group of products that work together to create a “mixed reality” for the consumer. The most interesting of the products was a pair of spectacles that project data — e.g., the weather, news headlines, text messages from your — above the main field of vision.

Critics of these various unbundlings claim that consumers will never allow themselves to be encumbered by new tech appendanges. But that’s what makes the contact lens so provocative. There are many of — people who are too vain — who would never wear glasses. And there are many of us — people who are too fussy, too lazy, or too disorganized — who would never wear contacts. But I’d bet that there are even more of us — people who just fear looking dorky — who would never walk down the street pointing our phones at people, places, and things. With the options for “better vision” ever increasing, AR is beginning to look like it’s really going to happen.

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