Lenovo has been pushing the innovation button of late, and at CES 2021, they didn’t disappoint anyone. But the most interesting product they launched was the ThinkReality Glasses A3. This solution is the first iteration of an enterprise-grade head-mounted display. Like flat panels revolutionized PCs–incredibly portable PCs–I think head-mounted displays could revolutionize the next generation of mobile PCs.
While these glasses are a first-generation device and occlusion still needs some work, they have the potential to change how and where we use our computers. They had an additional advantage in terms of security, and this could be the beginning of an entirely new generation of PCs.
Let’s talk about that this week.
The flat panel revolution
Before flat-panel displays, everything visual used CRTs. My last CRT was a 25-inch monster from Sony, which had a flat, heavy glass front and, for its time, high resolution. It weighed in at around 125 pounds, and the reason I ended up with it was I was last on the product tour, and the Sony folks didn’t want to carry the damn thing anymore. What makes this display memorable was when I was working under my then roll-top desk, and the supports below the display failed. Fortunately, it jammed on the way down because, otherwise, it would have crushed my head, and I’m pretty sure there isn’t enough Advil in the world to fix a crushed head.
We had multiple displays, even back then, but they took up a ton of desktop real estate, and 25 inches was about as big as you could get. Portable computers started out using CRT screens; they weighed a ton, and if you want battery power, you’d better pack a car battery. I recall carrying a portable PC around that time after I had an operation and ended up ripping out my stitches as I tried to run to catch a plane in Dallas.
The first flat panels were pretty limited; my first was a plasma display, which had two colors–dark and bright orange–and it took a ton of power, so even with no battery, the thing still weighed in at around 35 pounds (it did have a built-in printer).
But when LCDs finally hit the market in the mid-’90s on laptops, suddenly we could have batteries (granted battery life was measured in minutes), and laptops dropped below 10 pounds. Now, decades later, some laptops are below 2 pounds and, with head-mounted displays and a voice interface or wireless keyboard, they could merge with smartphones.
Head-mounted displays put the display in front of your eyes. While Lenovo’s offering is 1080p, I’ve used other offerings (for entertainment) that have been up to 2K, and 4K displays are coming. The higher the resolution, the better these displays emulate high-resolution flat panels and, since they take up your entire visual range, the virtual display can be, virtually, far more extensive than you’d likely be able to put on your desk. You can also have as many virtual displays as you want, with some placed outside your peripheral vision. You could put them above and below your line of sight and around you.
Your limitation would probably be tied more closely to the number of displays your computer could support and the glasses’ connection bandwidth. With the display no longer dictating the laptop’s size, the laptop would then be limited by the keyboard’s size, and keyboards can undoubtedly be far more easily designed to fold than the display. With a voice interface or a projected keyboard, you could make the device smaller still and perform current high-end smartphones coupled with a 5G cloud link; you might be able to leave the PC behind and carry the smartphone.
Oh, and then there is entertainment. Back in the early 2000s, Sony loaned me a head-mounted display that it had developed for the medical market. It was a fantastic device, and I watched movies on the plane to a big event. The flight attendant asked me if I worked for the CIA (I didn’t). The event I attended was next to a LAN party, where people were competitive gaming. I let the players try the device, and I was instantly a star; they loved it, and it had nowhere near the capability of this new Lenovo solution.
The 2K movie glasses I have I use when I go to the dentist when I have my teeth cleaned to watch movies. It turns a tedious and somewhat painful experience (apparently, my teeth develop concrete tarter) into something I look forward to (I save movies specifically to watch during the cleaning).
Wrapping up: Head-mounted displays will start a revolution
Lenovo bringing enterprise head-mounted displays to market could start a revolution–not only in display use but in PC design. One thing I didn’t mention is that they have a security advantage; only you can see what is on the screen. This advantage is useful when sitting next to some curious person on a plane or someplace else when watching a movie with racy scenes next to a child or easily offended adult.
Yes, there are privacy screens, but they generally don’t work if someone is watching behind you, and there is a technology that will tell you if someone is looking, but most of us don’t have either; with glasses, you don’t need them. There is one issue: video conferencing. NVIDIA showcased technology that could create a realistic a vatar that lip-syncs what you are saying, and we’ve had the virtual background for a while. Using that technology, you could, even if you were naked, call up the Avitar correctly dressed and with makeup looking any way you like (how about your 25-year-old self) and never have to worry about dressing for a meeting again.
The glasses do have built-in cameras that I didn’t mention, which means they could be used for training to get remote support for a tech doing a job, much like AR glasses. But their real claim to fame is potentially revolutionizing the PC market and, perhaps, forcing a merger of PCs and smartphones. However, I wouldn’t expect that until mid-decade. On the other hand, the pandemic is speeding everything in this space up, so it could happen much faster. It’ll be an impressive few years.