Will Head Mounted Displays Replace Monitors for Gaming?

I’ve been messing with AMD Eyefinity stuff for several months and NVIDIA’s 3D Vision platform for around year. Both are really cool, but have severe limitations that reduce their usefulness which seem to have less and less to do with the technology from each firm and more to do with the limitations of the displays that are available. There is another big push on head mounted displays coming and since I’m one of the few that used, for awhile, the $25,000 head mounted Sony display for gaming successfully I think, designed right, monitors could actually become obsolete. Granted it will take awhile, but let’s explore this.

The Wonders and Limits of NVIDIA 3Dvision

I was at a pregame launch a week or so ago that I can’t yet talk about because the game hasn’t launched (it’s great btw). At the launch they had huge 30” displays to play the game on in 2D and, off to the side, they had a 3D demonstration of the same game. Problem was it was on the typical 22” display that supports 3D, and after playing on those huge displays, dropping back to 22” seemed very constraining.

The game looked wonderful in 3D and I actually preferred it in this mode but, given a choice, I’d take the larger monitor over the smaller 3D setup any day of the week. I’m told bigger displays are coming and there are some TVs that support this (I actually have a compliant 61” Mitsubishi that I use myself) but had NVIDIA been able to launch 3D Vision with a large monitor, I think the take up and use of this technology would have been much more compelling and the sales much stronger.

The Wonders and Limits of Eyefinity

I have two Eyefinity setups. Eyefinity is the AMD technology which allows several monitors to behave as if they were one monitor. The largest configuration you can have is 6 monitors and they all either have to be used with displayport or use active ($100 ea) display port dongles. The result looks really cool, but game playability is not so great because of the wide bezels on the monitors. This means I don’t game on it much because the two middle screens put the bezels right in the middle of my field of view which is where folks like to put menus and crosshairs. I have a second 3 monitor Eyefinity setup but I chose 24” Dell panoramic monitors and ran them in portrait, this is vastly more playable but the gaps are huge because the monitor stand can’t get them close enough together.

The best configuration would likely be a 27” Monitor in landscape and the 2 24” monitors in portrait but Eyefinity doesn’t support that mode yet. Barring that 3 attractively priced 24” or 27” monitors with thin bezels and a matching stand would work fine. That evidently isn’t in the market yet either.

Vertical Integration

The market is going through a vertical integration stage where companies are beginning to own their eco-systems. HP just bought Palm to get an OS and is rumored to be looking at Novell. Apple has started to build their own chips, and Microsoft has their own chip design group as well and has started to design their own phones. AMD bought a graphics company, ATI, to better vertically integrate in the PC space, and NVIDIA with Tegra has a highly vertical solution for phones. Qualcomm first licensed graphics from AMD and now is developing their Mirasol display technology (HP is developing a similar display technology which will likely be used in their own Superwatches, Smartphones, and Tablets).

At some point I expect that the vertical that Graphics occupies will eventually have to include displays so that display limitations which restrict the success of technologies like Eyefinity and 3Dvision can be eliminated. With HP and Qualcomm it is already happening in smaller devices, why not PCs?

Could Head Mounted Displays Do an End Run?

As I mentioned at the outset, I got to use a Sony Glasstron high end (primarily for Medical work) head mounted display years ago and took it to a LAN party in Boston. It was a huge hit. Very high resolution and you could adjust it so you could see through the display to see the keys on a keyboard. It even had high quality built-in ear buds.

Because the glasses were so high quality, I didn’t have the typical headaches and fatigue that typically go along with these things and because I could see through the display I could actually use gaming controls and didn’t feel claustrophobic. Most of the head mounted stuff I’ve tried since has been junk, but the cost of high quality small displays has plummeted over the decade since I tried this thing.

I think you could build head-mounted displays with small cameras and augmented reality software which could blend the physical with the virtual and give you the capability not only to get an experience closer to that of using a monitor, but allow you to walk around while using the device either blending real and virtual or more effectively multi-tasking (no driving though). For instance, for gaming, when you looked down, your hands and keyboard would appear in the game field if you wanted or if someone walked up to you their head would appear in the field while you spoke to them (you could even have them teleconference into the game for a chat) or have your cell phone display pop in if you wanted to make a call. Once you go down the augmented reality path your only limit is your imagination.

Wrapping Up: Next Generation of Displays

Qualcomm and HP are already thinking that owning displays will be a critical part of the future of personal technology and it won’t be long before the graphics vendors are likely to pick this up as well. The result should be much faster moving graphics capabilities like Eyefinity and 3Dvision coupled with the increasing possibility of augmented reality glasses. It’ll probably take most of the decade to work this out but we may be at the beginning of the end for displays as we know them and, like the typewriter’s replacement by the PC, once they evolve we probably won’t miss where they came from at all.

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