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Emperor’s new

photonics clothes

Rachel Berkowitz discusses how wearable technologies for applications such as media, sports, logistics, and medicine are improving in terms of design and functionality


t some point in human history, ‘wearable technology’ meant wrapping yourself in the hide of the animal that you hunted with

a hand-made spear. More recently, LED digital watches topped the 1970s charts for fashionable photonics. But now, wearable technology extends from head to toe, with glasses that project a smartphone screen in front of your eye; contact lenses poised to combine medical sensors with mobile virtual reality; and comfortable textiles integrated with LEDs and photonic sensors that monitor biological functions.

Looking closer If the initial release of Google Glass left the scientific and non-scientific communities reeling in a fit of intrusiveness and bulky design, then a newly focused world of ‘smart’ eyewear should leave them excited about a sleek and useful product.

In January 2015, Google halted sales of the Glass in its current form, with an aim to concentrate on developing and improving the


product. Many industry commentators blamed this decision on a poor design and hefty price tag, which led to poor user adoption of the glasses. Finland-based company Dispelix Oy describes smart eyewear as ‘the display challenge that everyone is trying to solve’. Their solution to developing a product is a near-to-the-eye, transparent display that looks like normal eyewear.

‘When Google withdrew their product, it shook up the market. People wanted to know if there would be another [form of] smart eyewear,’ said Antti Sunnari, CEO of Dispelix. Now, Dispelix is preparing to commercialise a new display, developed with VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, which brings a virtual image equivalent to a 60-inch screen three metres in front of the eyes. ‘We’re working to combine three factors: image quality, thin lenses, and cost-effective optics manufacturing,’ Sunnari added. To display a smartphone screen virtually, the first requirement is a battery to drive the electronics and illumination. Electronic switches from Android and iOS, which are found in many smartphones, control these components. The primary image source usually comprises a liquid crystal on silicon, from which the image is projected toward the coupling area with nanoscale diffractive patterns. This couples the light inside the eyewear. Then, total internal reflection out-couples the image towards the user’s eye. ‘There are a lot of different technologies [for communicating with the display], including

Dispelix Oy has developed a near-to-the eye, see- through display that looks like normal eyewear, and projects a virtual 60-inch screen viewed at 3m distance

eye tracking1

, sensors, touch screen and voice. Nobody [yet] knows what the winner [will be],’ said Sunnari. Dispelix makes the optical components, but partner organisations design the electronics and integration into a product. There is high demand among many industrial sectors for smart eyewear, as this makes it possible to display information easily for the worker. In warehouses – such as at that of international delivery company DHL – smart eyewear boosts efficiency, as workers can use both hands, have no need for barcode scanners or papers, and can follow mapped routes for locating packages. In a world of increasingly complex machinery, customer service agents at Hewlett-Packard (HP) can view an image of, for example, a digital printing machine that a customer is struggling with, and help the client solve the problem. ‘That is something that many industries are looking for,’ Sunnari observed. Moreover, in the field of sports, wristwatch

electronics incorporated into a display on protective glasses would make it possible to monitor heartbeat, speed, and altitude without extra devices. And healthcare teams will be able to streamline workflows and access data intelligently delivered to smart glasses.

Lightweight and fashionable Consumers, particularly millennials, want devices with ever larger screens and rich,

@electrooptics |

Juha Sarkkinen/VTT Research

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