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The man making Terminator vision real: Vuzix CEO Paul Travers talks future display tech

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Last week, video eyewear maker Vuzix announced (pdf) that it has partnered with cell phone maker Nokia to produce the next generation of see-through near-eye display (NED) glasses. The glasses will use Exit Pupil Expanding (EPE) optics technology developed by both Vuzix and Nokia.

Vuzix, which has been developing display technologies for the military since 1997, credits itself with creating the consumer video eyewear market, which it did in 2005 with the release of the V920 glasses. 

The V920s and other Vuzix products allow users to view media on a pair of glasses, which make it look as though they are watching a big-screen television. Unfortunately, the less-than-stylish look, high cost and relatively cumbersome feel of the Vuzix glasses have made a full-on breakthrough into the mainstream difficult. 

After learning about the Vuzix-Nokia deal, which the company says will enable a “new era of innovation” for NEDs, we thought we’d get a bit more info about what remains a potentially game-changing technology. We asked Vuzix founder, president and CEO Paul Travers how the next generation of glasses will shift gears for the company.

paul travers vuzixDigital Trends: For starters, how would you describe Vuzix’s products, and NED systems in general, to someone who has no idea what they are?

Travers: The technology’s roots lay in the defense industry, where it is used to drive robots, in night-vision systems, remote video feed access, and wearable displays for laptops.  Most of our current consumer customers use our products for mobile video viewing, watching 3D movies and gaming.  For the latter, we offer head-tracking technology that literally allows the user to “look around” the game as if they stepped inside. 

Recently, Vuzix started shipping a new line of video eyewear that enables augmented reality.  These glasses are transparent and have cameras so the user can see computer graphics overlaid in the real world.

What exactly is Nokia’s EPE technology, and how does it work?

The Nokia optics are thin plastic plates that have 300-micron gratings built into the surface that direct video from a small input grating through the plate to a large output grating that you look through to see the real world and the injected video.  These optics are as thin as reading glasses, and when paired with a Vuzix display engine, will finally allow a form factor that truly looks like sunglasses.  It is the culmination of years of technology development and finally close to becoming a reality. 

How will the integration of Nokia’s EPE technology change Vuzix’s NED systems?

Our current technology is based on conventional refractive and reflective optics and micro-displays that were designed for camera view finders.  This technology, both the EPE optics and the Vuzix display engine, changes everything.  From form factors, to price to power consumption, to resolution — all the things needed to finally realize the consumer’s vision.  

How would you describe the potential users experience of a pair of Nokia-enhanced NED glasses?

Look at all the cool apps that do AR on a phone, and now imagine those experiences in your glasses connecting the web and the world like never before.  

vuzix-wrap-2Will Nokia-powered Vuzix glasses be used with other Nokia products?  If so, how? Will we be able to see our phone screens on our glasses?

One of the biggest applications will be around the mobile phone.  All the major suppliers have GPS-enabled apps that are AR enabled just waiting for the right glasses to deliver the experience.  The Nokia Vuzix relationship will deliver for these experiences in your sunglasses.

What are some of the challenges of breaking NED into the mainstream? And how do you expect the addition of Nokia’s technology to make that breakthrough less difficult?

Current products are bulky, expensive, and lower resolution. This relationship changes all of that.

Where do you see NED systems going in the next 10 years? How “sci-fi” will it get in that time?

They will be part of every aspect of life.  From a visit to the doctor, to interacting with game characters, to stepping into a meeting with people from three different continents right in your home office. 

When will customers be able to purchase Nokia-enhanced NED glasses?

We will be shipping into the defense markets in Q1 of next year. Stay tuned for the consumer markets.