Technologists say that a wearable tech revolution is coming. The only problem is that no one can agree on what it will look like.
You’ve seen Google Glass headsets, smartwatches, earpieces, and even smart shoes. Now Nokia (yes, still in business) has come up with a new concept its creators are convinced represents an exciting alternative: A smart spyglass.
Named after the small magnification device commonly used by jewelers, Loupe is a near-eye virtual display that compresses Google Glass-style functionality into a tiny handheld device resembling a miniature telescope.
“We were interested in creating a device that would have some of the positives of a device like Google Glass, but wouldn’t have all of the same trade-offs in terms of costs versus benefits for the user,” says Kent Lyons, formerly principal researcher at the Nokia Research Center, now working at Yahoo Labs.
Sized at just 3cm x 8cm, Loupe is the polar opposite of Google’s “always-on” model. Instead of being an omnipresent recording device, it is designed for viewing only, and is put away when not in use–either worn around the neck like a pendant, or placed in a shirt pocket for easy access.
The research team behind Loupe started work on the project last year, experimenting with different form factors. They were particularly inspired by a spyglass-style portable picture viewer Nokia released in 2004, called the Nokia Kaleidoscope.
Arriving at a time when other companies were trying to figure out the digital picture frame, the $300 Kaleidoscope was a 75g device that allowed people to privately view their photos while on the move. The concept failed to take off, but the team at Nokia was intrigued.
“What it lacked was the kind of rich interaction made possible using today’s technology,” says David Nguyen, another researcher at the company who worked on Loupe.
The project was hacked together from various pieces of existing hardware. The micro-display was taken from a pair of Epson Moverio BT-100 smart glasses: an Android-powered binocular device which projects a big-screen image the equivalent of a 320-inch display viewed from a distance of 65 feet. The team took the glasses to pieces, threw out the optics and housing, and then extracted the electronics, one of the LCDs, and the LED backlight.
For the magnification, the team used a jeweler’s loupe with a diameter of 13mm and a nominal magnification of 20×2. The Loupe’s multitude of sensors were all from existing models including accelerometers, magnetometers, gyroscopes, and an infrared proximity sensor to establish when the device was being placed in front of the user’s eye.
Outwardly a spyglass doesn’t seem like it should feature a whole lot of possible input methods–particularly since the user has to be able to operate them without looking. However, as Lyons explains, there are more control methods than you might think.
“For our prototype we put capacitive touch points around the outside of the device,” he says. “Just like having a touch screen on a tablet or smartphone, users can interact with Loupe by way of an outside touch surface. This means a variety of different swipes, finger placements, or other gestures could be recognized.”
The plethora of smart sensors open up possibilities for controlling Loupe by tilting the device, or else spinning it on its axis. “Imagine it like spinning a pen in your fingers,” Lyons continues. “That rotated between the different applications that we mocked up. Then aim the device down and that moves into an extended view, where you can flip between different pieces of content.”
The user interface itself is both newly designed with the device in mind, but also somewhat familiar. Because the electronics were kept from the Epson smart glasses, the device runs a version of Android OS. The interface presents the information users would wish to access–be it web pages, calendar entries, or photos–on what looks like a stack of Polaroid pictures, which recede off into the distance. Around this celestial filing cabinet is a colored ring, on which different apps are dotted like the numbers on a clockface. Currently these apps, which include Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others, are just mock-ups, but the team says the interface works surprisingly well.
“We decided to focus on digital media that favored a ‘snacking’ approach,” says Nguyen. “That’s the kind of short-term task you might carry out while waiting in line at a bank, or sitting in the waiting room to see a doctor. It could be checking your Facebook feed for news, for instance, or looking at photos you’ve been tagged in.”
So what are the chances that Loupe will become an actual product with a shipping date? As you would expect from a prototype, there are plenty of hurdles. The jeweler’s loupe used for magnification isn’t ideal, for one thing, since it creates visible aberrations in the displayed image. However, these problems could be easily solved, and the OS could be finished.
“From a technology perspective it is very plausible,” Lyons says. “It’s the same kind of technology that’s already been used in Google Glass, so there’s not a big gap that would need to be overcome for moving this beyond the prototype stage. Will it ship? I don’t know–I’m no longer working at Nokia. But I’d like to see it.”
The bigger question, of course, concerns whether Loupe is the kind of wearable device that could find its way in the mass market. Following the old adage about trees falling in the woods, if nobody asks for a spyglass-shaped wearable does it still represent a breakthrough?
One barrier to entry is the current cost of wearable tech. While component prices are coming down all the time, smartwatches and head-up displays are still costly enough that most users will only buy one (if any).
“That’s going to change as we move forward,” he says. “It may be that a personalization can occur whereby you’ll own multiple wearables, and pick the one that suits you best in a given situation.” In the same way that currently we put on a T-shirt if it’s sunny, and a waterproof jacket when it rains, so would cheaper devices mean that we could choose to wear a smartwatch on occasions, and carry a Loupe-style device on others.
It also depends on what the use case for wearables turns out to be, and we don’t really know that yet. New technology only makes total sense once customers start dictating how they want to use it.
“As an industry, we owe it to ourselves and to consumers to try and find that one killer experience that is going to persuade people to put down money for wearables,” Nguyen says. “As far as I can tell, we haven’t got there yet–but we’re all trying our best. And I hope that Loupe is a step in the right direction.”