1994

Getting an Eyeful: Retinal Display


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A system to display electronic images on the human retina has been demonstrated by UW industrial engineering professor Tom Furness and colleagues. Although there is much more work to be done, the recent research development is a major step on the way toward a commercial virtual retinal display that could project into the eye three-dimensional, high-resolution images, eliminating the need for computer screens and video monitors. footnote 1comma footnote 2

Furness is the director of the Human Interface Technology (HIT) Lab, a research unit of the College of Engineering supported by the Washington Technology Center. The display was developed in collaboration with Richard Johnston, director of engineering at the HIT Lab, optical engineer Joel Kollin, and colleagues.

Instead of looking at a TV or computer screen, a viewer would don what would resemble a pair of high-tech eyeglasses that project computer-generated images directly into the eye. The technology has been licensed by the UW to Microvision, Inc., a Seattle-based start-up company. Microvision is supplying a $5.1 million grant to the UW researchers for further research and development on the device.

The new technology will render much of the conventional flat-panel display technology obsolete, said Furness at a demon- stration of a prototype system in May 1994. That prototype projected a monochrome image of a three-dimensional model of the Space Needle with seagulls flapping around it. The image was projected at a resolution of 900 by 1024 pixels, on the order of high-resolution computer displays.

Images can be made so that the viewer cannot distinguish between the display and reality; or the display may be superimposed over the viewer's normal vision so that both can be seen simultaneously. In mid-1995, the researchers reported that a full-color, see-through display had been constructed; progress also had been made to allow free eye movement in a head-mounted display system.

Furness has been working on advanced display technologies for many years. Prior to joining the UW in 1989, Furness served as chief of the USAF's Visual Display Systems Branch of the Armstrong Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where he was working on ways to improve the interactions of pilots and their advanced aircraft cockpits, especially how to help them overcome being overwhelmed during combat by information being fed to them from computerized devices. Furness developed the "supercockpit," which used headgear to create a synthetic, three-dimensional representation of this information. The field of Virtual Reality (VR) is an outgrowth of such efforts.

In recent years, VR has experienced rapid progress and expansion into many application areas, from medicine to entertainment. The central idea is to immerse users in a computer-simulated representation of a three-dimensional space. Up to now, that has been accomplished by the user wearing a special helmet that presents a three-dimensional image of the space to the user. By tracking the user's movements, the computer rapidly updates the scene so that the user can navigate through and interact with the space. Coupled with high-tech communication links and video cameras, virtual reality will enable users from remote sites to interact in a virtual meeting room, or to remotely operate equipment or conduct inspections at an industrial site, for example, without leaving the comfort of their armchairs.

As director of the UW's HIT Lab, Furness oversees a wide array of research efforts relating to virtual reality, in addition to the virtual retinal display. In November 1994, the Lab demonstrated virtual conferencing technology. Two people sitting at a table in Seattle and two others sitting at a table in Tokyo used headgear, computer-processed images, and 5,200 miles of fiber-optic cable to convene a meeting in a shared three-dimensional environment.footnote 3


  1. "Into the Eye of the Beholder," Jon Marmor, Columns, September 1994, p. 22.
  2. "Technology takes virtual reality right to the mind's doorstep," Paul Andrews, The Seattle Times.
  3. "A virtual bridge to Tokyo," Steve Miletich, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Nov. 15, 1994, p. A10.

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