The Rise of Head-Mounted Displays

by Prans

Head-Mounted Displays?

Head-mounted displays (HMDs)  are, as the name suggests, devices worn over the head that possess a display optic in front of one or both eyes. You have most probably come across the former in recent years in the form of Virtual Reality (VR). The latter has gone mainstream thanks to Google’s Google Cardboard platform that enables owners of most current smartphones and an HMD as cheap as $5 made from cardboard to experience this new technology. VR has become so popular and widely embraced that it would not strike people in developed countries to see someone with an HMDs strapped to his or her face as peculiar, if not ridiculous. Even VR cafes have started to bloom, promising new social experiences. However, the social impact of VR has not always been a positive one and questions arise regarding the long-lasting impact of HMDs on society as a whole as this technology takes us by a storm.

What Can HMDs Offer Us?

Currently, the most mainstream form of HMDs are those used for Virtual Reality. Virtual Reality is a great way to have new experiences. Its applications range from embodying your favorite video game characters to exploring far off cities to training surgeons! It unlocks a new means to explore and learn in a novel, interactive way. Indeed, doing things in VR has an edge over just watching something similar on a normal screen as it stimulates “embodied cognition, giving the user an active rather than passive experience just like one would have by actually doing what they see in VR! However, newer players with visions other than VR are coming into the HMD market. If I were to mention ‘MovieMask’ to you, it might not ring any bells. However, to the 1,562 backers on Indiegogo who believed in this project and backed it  to 1208% of its initial goal, it means a great deal as it promised “revolutionary lens technology, the ability to watch any content from any app and 4X the resolution as on mobile VR.” Dubbed as “your portable cinema”, this device will use your phone’s full resolution to deliver 4X the resolution as unlike VR, it does not split your phone’s screen in two. It is a new and innovative spin on what HMDs can be used for!

Other companies have been investing in Augmented Reality or even the Mixed Reality like Microsoft’s HoloLens and the super-secretive multi-billion Magic Leap startup. The former has been adopted mostly by professionals like surgeons due to its current steep price. On the other hand, Magic Leap, which has created a lot of hype among technology enthusiasts ever since it teased the prowess of its device, is set to release its first Mixed Reality headset this year at the price of a high-end phone. The success of the MovieMask and the anticipation of upcoming devices like Magic Leap’s further goes on to show that people are more than willing to embrace newer HMDs for different purposes and that there will potentially be a boom in HMD users. Case in point: Europe’s VR community has doubled from 2016 to 2017!

It's Not All Roses…

Picture the Champs Elysées in Paris, France for a moment. A man and his family enter the nearby McDonald’s to have some food when an employee of the food chain assaults the man and angrily tries to pull off the man’s eyewear from his head mentioning that cameras are not allowed inside. This eyeglass, effectively an HMD, is actually permanently attached to and does not come off the man’s skull without special equipments. Even after the man presents a doctor’s note and accompanying documents stating that the man needs to wear his headgear things don’t go down smoothly. The employee crumples and rips the doctor’s note and pushes the man out the door, onto the street.

This shocking scenario actually played out not too long ago in 2012 in what has been dubbed as “world’s first cybernetic hate crime”.  And the victim was none other than Steve Mann, the “father of wearable computing“ and professor at the University of Toronto! This incident is a prime example that in our modern society bias already exist against people who have implemented technology in their daily lives. As such, adopters of the latest HMDs, who are on the rise, might not be totally safe. Let’s say I want to enjoy a movie or the latest episode in my favorite series during a long bus ride or a flight without the interference from the immediate environment. Shouldn’t I be able to just slip on a device like the MovieMask to do so, mind my own business and not even think of being assaulted upon? A possible root for the hate towards HMD wearers might stem from the outcry from many people concerning the negative aspects of Virtual Reality. Those whistleblowers point to vices like the potential to be exposed to immersive negative influences like violent VR games or VR pornography. When posed with this dilemma in a recent National Geographic interview, Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interactive Lab at Stanford University, replied by saying that “you shouldn’t do things that you wouldn’t do in the real world. If there’s some heinous activity—however you define that—in the real world, you shouldn’t do it in VR”. This healthy outlook on VR experiences one wants to try out should be widely adopted in my opinion.

Learning From Past Experiences

However such backlash might actually push companies investing heavily in HMDs to make their devices less conspicuous and less socially awkward. A great example would be Intel’s newly revealed Vaunt smartglass project. Rather than focusing on extra functionality, Intel’s smartglass concept stripes it down to the bare minimum to make it look like a regular pair of glasses. It works by projecting information directly into the wearer’s retina in a minimally intrusive way by using infra-red technology within a safe spectrum. One of Intel’s representative even jokingly adds that “you can ignore people more efficiently that way.” Indeed this rather simple statement  might be what pushes more wearable technology manufacturers to adopt a more minimal philosophy to their devices, one that is more socially accepted.

It’s Up To Us

Head-mounted displays are one of the most defining devices of our age. Whether you use an HMD for educational or recreational purposes or are a firm skeptic, it will sure to have an impact on the social aspect of our lives and shape our future social interaction, in fact it is already in the process of doing so. However, the direction it takes ultimately depends on our view and acceptance, as individuals and a collective of society.