Headsets. Eyeglasses. Contacts. That’s our future, according to companies like Magic Leap and Microsoft, which are building incredible augmented reality systems that turn the entire world into a touch-screen interface.
Could there be another way? Using technologies co-developed with Sony, the University of Tokyo has demonstrated an alternative technology that it dubs the Portable Lumipen. It’s a Flava-Flav-like projector that you wear around your neck, where the Lumipen can track and project information onto the world around you with incredible speed and precision.
The Lumipen can spot a cockroach scurrying by and put a warning symbol above its body. It can put simple navigation or weather apps onto your hand and keep them there, even as you move it around, and recognize your hand’s gestures so that you can control that information like an interface. The Lumipen also works as a really nice pointer, allowing you to point to something with your finger and place a makeshift cursor right onto it.
How does it work? The system uses extremely advanced projection mapping. Remember projection mapping? It’s basically what happens when you mix a projector with motion tracking, and even a bit of computer vision to identify objects. This allows the Lumipen to paint digital images right atop the real world at an insane 1,000 frames per second with only a 3-millisecond lag. To put that number dump into perspective, films and video games today are usually displayed at 30 or 60 frames per second. And it takes about 26 milliseconds for the newest iPhone to respond to your touch.
The Lumipen is insanely fast by any measure, and that significantly affects how it feels to use the system. Having used a touchable projection mapping system with similar specs in Microsoft’s own lab, I can assure you–while the pixels may glow, when those pixels move that fast in response to you, they feel real. It’s wonky.
Projection mapping was all the rage a few years ago. We saw demos from Microsoft and others who showed off reality-bending Star Trek Holodeck-style experiences. But with the rise of augmented reality, interest in projection mapping seems to have cooled. It makes sense: With AR glasses, the industry can imagine a consumer-friendly product. Projection mapping systems typically need to be installed into our infrastructure, like walls or ceilings, which is a slower and trickier proposition. It’s a lot easier to sell 100 million smartglasses than to go into 100 million rooms and install screens and motion trackers, right?
I’m not sure the Lumipen has any viable future as a consumer electronic. It’s technically wearable, but quite bulky. Still, its researchers have developed something pretty unbelievable, a piece of technology that shows us another path for AR as we know it. It’s a more social vision of augmented life, where everything we see is also visible to the people around us, rather than hidden from their view–which, for cockroach spotting purposes alone, feels like a value worth pursuing.