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Move over, mobiles: Let your eyes do the walking

The Recon Instruments Micro Optics Display unit that attaches to goggles, with a sample readout.

Recon Instruments

By giving skiers and snowboarders a way to see a readout of their speed, altitude and the like right in their goggles, Vancouver-based Recon Instruments joined the race to create ever-tinier near-eye displays that free users from having to type and browse on handheld devices.

"The future is definitely going to be real-time access to information without the need of using your hands and reaching for a mobile box in your pocket," says Hamid Abdollahi, Recon's chief technology officer.

Recon is a leading developer of head-mounted or wearable displays, whose applications range from entertainment to health care. Thanks to miniaturization and other advances, using this technology could soon be as simple as slipping on a pair of shades – or even contact lenses.

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Mr. Abdollahi launched Recon in 2008 with three former classmates from a technology entrepreneurship course at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business. He'd just finished his master's in mechanical engineering at UBC, with a focus on sensors and GPS technology.

The Recon CTO set out to make a display that fit inside a pair of alpine goggles – no easy task, as he soon discovered.

He started by crafting a rudimentary prototype in his UBC lab space. This 2008 effort was bulky: "The very first one was a laptop packed into a backpack, and the video was basically going through a cable into the goggles," Mr. Abdollahi recalls.

But new technology soon helped Recon shrink its product. Late last decade, Apple and other mobile phone makers prompted the development of smaller, faster processors and miniaturized sensors. That meant Recon could jam a great deal of instrumentation into a minuscule package." The smartphone revolution really is what has made this possible," says Dan Eisenhardt, the company's president and CEO.

Recon released its first commercial product in late 2010. Today the two versions of its Bluetooth-compatible Micro Optic Display (MOD) are available separately and combined with goggles by Germany's Uvex Winter Holding and U.S.-based Zeal Optics. Besides Uvex and Zeal, two other companies make "Recon Ready" goggles.

The 65-gram device, which snaps into the goggles and sits just below the eye, has a colour liquid crystal display roughly the size of a pinky fingernail. Glancing down, the user sees data like jump height, temperature and GPS location – on what appears to be a 14-inch screen at a distance of about five feet.

Recon's MOD Live version also offers features such as wireless compatibility with sports video cameras and buddy tracking through Android phones.

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MOD Live, which packs a 600-MHz processor, runs on Google Inc.'s Android Gingerbread operating system. It contains a GPS receiver, a so-called 6-degrees-of-freedom inertial sensor with a gyroscope and an accelerometer, and compass, temperature and barometric pressure sensors. "This allows us to monitor full movement of the body in sports and activity," Mr. Abdollahi says.

Meanwhile, the display showing readouts from these sensors rests at the end of a custom-designed lens that creates what Mr. Eisenhardt describes as a prism effect. "This lens not only enlarges the image; it also augments it out in front of you so it basically is focused on infinity," he says. "So you don't have to shift focus when you're looking down at the lens."

As Mr. Abdollahi explains, Recon also plans to apply its technology to sports such as motocross, running and scuba diving. Firefighting, welding and other industrial applications are another potential market – especially given that partner Uvex is a major manufacturer of safety eyewear.

Last year, NASA invited Recon to supply goggles for its annual field testing of next-generation spacesuit technology. Although the U.S. space agency liked what it saw, Mr. Eisenhardt doesn't expect to profit from that relationship. "It's all about being associated with NASA and being part of such a cool application," he says. "But it's not a commercial path for us."

As Recon keeps refining its invention, others are pursuing similar technology.

For example, Google is said to be working on glasses with a miniature screen and a built-in computer. And at the University of Washington, electrical engineering professor Babak Parviz has made prototypes of a virtual display whose circuitry fits on a contact lens.

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Paul Travers has explored this field for two decades. Back in 1994, Mr. Travers took the Forte VFX-1 head-mounted display to market as part of a virtual reality gaming system. He's now founder, president and CEO of Vuzix Corp., an established developer of what the Rochester, N.Y.-based company calls video eyewear.

Vuzix's products run from HD glasses for viewing movies in widescreen format to wearable display systems for military and industrial use. The company also sells augmented reality headsets that can show users the real world populated by computer-generated characters.

Within two years, Mr. Travers hopes to squeeze a head-mounted display down to what looks exactly like a pair of sunglasses.

Getting there involves putting a miniature diffraction grating (a structure that splits and diffracts light into several beams) on the surface of a thin piece of plastic.

"Because it's small – we're talking two millimetres square – the input light from the display engine can be very, very small," Mr. Travers explains. "So you can make a tiny display that injects light into that grating."

When the light hits the grating, it gets bent and forced down inside the plastic.

"There's some more grating on the horizontal and vertical that causes the light to be forced in a certain way to an output kind of grating," Mr. Travers says. "Those output gratings cause the light to turn out of the plastic plate and form the image in front of your eye."

The effect would be like looking through normal eyeglasses – except that the image from the display is overlaid on the real world. Mr. Travers envisions many applications, from a painted line to the nearest ATM to a 3D overlay of a CT scan to help with neurosurgery.

"The key to that is not just the glasses," he says. "They've got to be sunglasses, and they have to have sensors in them so your cellphone can know where you're looking so it can augment the real world."

Recon is considering sunglass displays, too, for running and other endurance sports. "We've deliberately waited on that," Mr. Eisenhardt says. "Every year, we get more access to better components that have a smaller footprint."

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