Microvision makes headway with wearable image displays

August 23, 2000

Microvision makes headway with wearable image displaysFirm seeks early adopters for ‘see-through’ viewerThe evolution of display technologies has primarily been toward larger, higher resolution monitors that improve image

Microvision makes headway with wearable image displays

Firm seeks early adopters for ‘see-through’ viewer

The evolution of display technologies has primarily been toward larger, higher resolution monitors that improve image quality. With the influx of personal digital assistants and mobile computing, however, plus the trend toward computing in specialized environments, some display vendors have opted to “go mobile.” And just like mobile computers, mobile displays face the challenge of meeting the same performance standards users have come to expect from desktop systems—not an easy task.

One company appears to be on the right track, however. Microvision has developed head-mounted displays (HMDs) that use retinal scanning display (RSD) technology to provide a high-resolution image that the user can see through. This approach differs from that of other HMD vendors, such as Vista Medical Technologies and Optimize, whose miniature flat-panel displays block the view of the user. Microvision gave a peek into its technology at the Computer Assisted Radiology and Surgery meeting show in July, where the company displayed two of its prototype products: a single-eye, single-color display and a dual-eye, full-color display.

“We showed applications requiring only a single color for a mobile user like a nurse or telemedic who would need fairly simple visual cues (such as patient data) and full-color examples like image-guided applications for neurosurgery and cardiology where color differentiation is more important,” said Matt Nichols, director of communications for the Bothell, WA-based firm.

Microvision claims that RSD gives the visual equivalent of a 17” monitor, an advantage over handheld displays and even laptops with 14.1” active matrix LCDs. In addition to the mobile displays, Microvision has been working on other applications in the optics field. These include a diagnostic tool developed in conjunction with the University of California, San Diego, using RSD to detect retinal disease and software to adapt displays for patients who have decreased vision.

“The medical arena is fairly cautious about introducing new products and the time to market is not rapid,” said Nichols. “Our marketing strategy in medical has been nontraditional, because we’re bypassing working with other device manufacturers. We have doctors willing to take our device and immediately go to clinicals.”

Microvision already has two OEM partnerships in place for the single-eye monochrome system with medical firms that Nichols declined to name. Both partnerships have created applications that are nearing the final stages of clinical evaluation. Nichols estimates that the single-eye display will be commercially available in spring 2001 and will cost around $10,000 as a stand-alone product and $15,000 if integrated with a wearable computer.

For the healthcare market, the color system is initially being used in the surgical arena. Optics firm Carl Zeiss provided additional funding to place the color display system at the Wallace Kettering Neuroscience Institute in Dayton, OH. The firm is building the color systems on a customized basis and has not come up with a commercial price yet, according to Nichols.

“The color system uses red, green, and blue light sources,” he said. “Monochrome systems are more affordable because the red light source is commonly available and inexpensive. Green and blue, however, are not commonly available and are very expensive. We have strategic relationships with light source vendors and are working to get the brightness and wavelengths that we need.”

Microvision is actively seeking development contracts with other vendors as well to help move the color display through the R&D phase. Development partners will have the advantage of being early adopters of the patented display technology and thus achieve market share in applications using “see-through” displays more quickly than potential competitors, according to Nichols.

“We’re looking all over the board,” Nichols said. “Prime candidates for integration include producers of visualization software, whose product offerings we can extend through our visualization technique, and other software vendors that have administrative and database products. Companies that excel at network connectivity are also interested in working with us. Our video source is completely platform-independent.”

The firm already has comarketing agreements with Xybernaut, a manufacturer of wearable computers, and WRQ, a network connectivity software vendor, for healthcare. The firms plan to cooperate on product development as well to ensure compatibility.

“WRQ excels at providing a wireless PC connectivity solution,” he said. “WRQ was particularly interested in the Microvision display technology because when they talked to medical companies, they found that handheld devices and laptops did not have enough display size.”

Essentially, Microvision will be looking for that “killer app” to take it to the next level. The Internet will be a key driver in taking its imaging methods to the masses, according to Nichols. In addition to vertical markets like healthcare, he sees developing consumer applications in the next three years for their display technology. Microvision’s miniature scanning products use silicon micromirrors that allow the scanners to be smaller and less expensive than laser scanning engines.

“The Internet is so graphics-intensive,” he said. “Right now, in order to receive information from the Web wirelessly, we have to extract 95% of the graphics because the displays can’t handle the information. That’s going backwards. Let’s expand on the graphics and richness that the Internet provides by creating a visualization tool that will do that.”