Despite the skeptics' claims, the head-mounted display may be at our doorstep. Gary Jones, CEO of eMagin Corp. of Hopewell, N.Y., says, "There will be a significant number of people using head-mounted displays for computing, entertainment, and games within the next five years. That's at least as many, from a percentage point of view, as will be using handheld devices."
His company has been manufacturing head-mounted products for the military, and it expects to begin delivering microdisplays for consumer head-mounted applications in 2001. Meanwhile, others feel these displays will provide a boost to the laptop market. Al Davis, senior director of microdisplay technology at Three-Five Systems in Tucson, Ariz., sees them as an opportunity for laptop-computer manufacturers to free their products from costly active-matrix TFTs. Three-Five, a microdisplay manufacturer, has been working closely with head-mounted display provider InViso of Sunnyvale, Calif.
Head-mounted displays build upon microdisplay technology, which measures less than 1 inch along its diagonal. Though major consumer manufacturers like Sony and Olympus have these displays on the market, most prices begin at $1000. With such a price tag, all agree that there won't be any rush to the local appliance store to pick up the technology, which often resembles a pair of sunglasses.
But Jones believes that in consumer volumes the microdisplay will come down to perhaps $40. If that occurs, the head-mounted display itself may plummet to $300 to $400. Then, the technology may take off in the marketplace.
Much of the development work has been done by InViso and eMagin Corp., as well as by MicroOptical Corp. of Westwood, Mass. The two major display techniques are liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS) and organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology. InViso touts LCoS, while eMagin promotes OLED.
LCoS fabrication is based upon semiconductor and LCD technologies, which are both quite mature. These microdisplays can bootstrap, thereby bypassing a good deal of developmental effort. OLED, an emissive technology, isn't quite here yet. Unlike transmissive and reflective displays, an OLED's light source is integral to the display itself. This leads to a number of benefits, such as simpler display construction and an unusually efficient lightsource—essential characteristics for head-mounted applications.