While proper 3-D holograms (“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope!”) are still a long way off, the first screenless 2-D displays do exist today — if you can swallow the $50,000 price point charged by companies like IO2 Technology. For the consumer market, screenless displays — projectors that cast images into thin air rather than needing a surface to project on — have yet to make an appearance. Imagine setting your smartphone on a table at Starbucks and seeing your computer desktop pop up in the air (as you type on a virtual keyboard that’s projected onto the table, and move files around with a flick of your finger in the air).
Smart Contact Lenses
Barring images zapped right onto your eyeball, how about images appearing in your contact lenses? Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have recently made strides toward that reality — though at the moment their lenses display only a single pixel and have been tested only on rabbits. Combined with the next generation of sophisticated augmented-reality technology, though, contact-lens displays could make a host of information available to you on a hands-free basis.
Retina Projection Displays
No less a technology guru than Bill Gates has predicted that the next generation of screens will consist of images projected directly onto the retina of your eye. An idea that has cropped up in science-fiction novels since the ’50s (including The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth), retina projection displays have been prototyped once or twice since then, though the obvious constraints of the technology — such as viewing angle and possible damage to the eye — mean that progress will be dependent on advances in related technology. Still, the thought of having a Terminator-like heads-up display at your disposal is a compelling one (provided you’re not planning on traveling back in time to assassinate the savior of the human race, that is).
Real Augmented Reality
At present, augmented reality consists of little more than geolocated markers that can be overlaid on a map or image of your surroundings, and at a relatively coarse level of precision that has, thus far, kept such applications from being really useful. But when augmented reality can actually alter your picture of the world around you — by mapping images more precisely to the buildings, objects and people that are in your view — look for it to work deep changes in how we understand and interact with our surroundings. Whether you plan to access this information on your smartphone, in your Vuzix eyewear or via your smart contact lenses, you’ll first have to wait until better object recognition and pinpoint geolocative technologies are developed — but rest assured, they’re on their way.
Besides being pioneers of contact-lens display technology, the University of Washington is also working on what amounts to electronic telepathy: using brainwave sensors developed there, subjects are able to move a cursor on a screen just by thinking of vowel sounds in their heads. Emotiv Systems offers a “neuroheadset” that can be used to control games and other applications, and NeuroSky is selling “brainwave sensors for everybody.” It will be some time before the technology is cheap enough to attract a market — meaning few developers are creating useful applications for it at the moment. But as the headsets come down in price and size, expect the screens of the future to start reading your mind. M.W.