Rumor has it that a well-known industrial giant will soon attempt to bring head-mounted displays back into fashion.
One ought to remember that, for a number of reasons, they were never really “in” fashion to begin with. To my knowledge, every single one ever marketed fell into one of the following categories:
- Military toy, priced somewhere in the luxury-car to small airplane range. (Typical example here.)
- Consumer-grade, low-resolution garbage, suitable only for watching pornography on airplanes. (Typical example here.)
Except for one: the Reflection Technology Private Eye. Circa 1989 (!). This particular gadget had a 720×280 monochrome display, implemented using a clever electromechanical principle. The Private Eye was a monocle and not particularly comfortable to use. I got mine rather cheaply from a collector back in 2004:
The above product was (and, weirdly, still is!) the best of its class – that is, the most practically-useful head-mounted display that a normal person might be able to buy. And yet it has a number of serious problems; chief among them is the fact that most people have two eyes. Both of which like to be in use at the same time.
It would certainly be interesting to see a modern incarnation of such a thing. The thing in question being a head-mounted display, suitable for viewing a reasonable screen-full of text – and one which costs less than a new car. But somehow I suspect that at least one of these conditions will not be met by the (allegedly) upcoming new product. High-resolution microdisplays have existed for a number of years. I suspect that they are being kept firmly off the consumer market by patent trolls.
Now, what “killer app” awaits the head-mounted display? What application would be lucrative enough to overcome the resistance of mighty patent trolls, and cause the gadget to actually be produced and aggressively marketed?
I’ve got some bad news… The killer app is quite likely to be the one described in the following story, whose author is unknown to me (please speak up if you happen to read this! ) I found it on an obscure forum sometime in 2007, and translated it from the original Russian. Behold:
In a typical Moscow apartment, in the year 2018:
- Dad, can I grab 99 bucks from your card? I’ve got to pay for a book…
- Oh, what sort of book?
- Well, um, Dostoevsky. “Crime and Punishment”.
- But why do you need to buy it? We have it.
- Oh? What file’s it in?
- What do files have to do with it? Here it is, on the shelf..
- Ugh. That’s a paper book!
- So, what? I was your age when I read it.
- My age, my age… It hasn’t got a search. How do you think I’m going to find quotes? There’s no audio-accompaniment. No animations. Just the text, where you can’t even change the font… I’ll be the laughing stock of the whole school! *You* read it.
- Well, all right. Here, take the DVD. I bought it fifteen years ago or so.
- What? A DVD? And what do you think I can read that antique with? Give it to a technology museum. Maybe you’ll offer me Dostoevsky on paper tape next!
- If you’re so smart, search the net yourself and download it for free.
- You can download a book for free!?
- Well, yes. How else? The copyright on Dostoevsky’s books expired years ago. No doubt it’s out there somewhere.
- You’re kidding, Dad! Maybe in *your* time, at the start of the century, you could download everything for free. Haven’t you heard that five years ago the copyrights to all books were permanently transferred to the American Association of Book Publishers? Or do you want me to go to jail for life, like that sect member Dmitri Sklyarov?
- But Dostoevsky wasn’t an American! What do American publishers have to do with this?
- And who cares about that? Dad, you aren’t an anti-globalist, are you?
- No, no, son. All right, son, its a pity to spend almost 100 dollars just for a file. Why don’t you ask a classmate for a copy? They must have it. Give them some other file in exchange.
- But! If they give me their Dostoevsky, where could I read it?
- What do you mean, “where”? They’ll read their copies at their homes, and you’ll read yours here.
- Oh, you’re totally behind the times! You can only read a book on the comp where it was bought from. And the polarization code will be different… Dad, just give me the cash! I’ll buy myself a normal book.
- All right. Here’s a one-time password to remove 99 bucks from our account. In my time 100 dollars was big money…
- Ok. Downloaded. Thanks.
- Well, let me see it too… Listen, son, what are all those pictures? Those weren’t in the novel…
- Duh, those are the banners. Without banners it costs 699 bucks.The open file was peppered with blinking ads: “Axe Professional, 2018 – modern axes honed with a laser”; “Cosmetic Salon ‘At Lizanka’s’ – we won’t let you turn into a crone”; “Bothered by problems? Psychological services at ‘Porphyry’”; “Credit, cash advances, low interest!”; “RASKOLNIKOFF.COM – sending naughty old ladies anywhere on the globe”…
- Listen, son, why can’t I see the text of the novel? Do I have to wait for the banners to go away?
- Where have you been, Dad? You can wait forever. You have to read the text through the polarizer glasses. Without them, all you’ll see is the ads!
- What’s that for?
- What do you mean, what’s that for? So nobody who hasn’t paid can read the book! Think, I buy a book, and someone who didn’t buy anything could read it over my shoulder…
- What foolishness. So what if I put on glasses too?
- Hah! The file’s set up only for *my* glasses. Other glasses have different polarization.
- All right, let me see your glasses. I’ll read through them.
- How will you see? They won’t recognize your retina. You won’t see anything but a notice that you’re wearing someone else’s glasses! Dad, don’t bother me with your silliness! I’ve got to read the book before my license runs out. I’ve gotta read everything fast, or the license has to be renewed, or the book will self-destruct. Don’t distract me, I’m reading…
3 hours later…
- Oof! That’s all. I’m done reading!
- Really? How did you read all of “Crime and Punishment” in three hours?!
- Well, yeah. I’d have read it faster if it weren’t for the commercial breaks every half-hour.
- I still don’t believe it! Who, for example, is Svidrigailov?
- Who, who?
- Aaah, I get it. Who’s Luzhin? Who’s Sonya Marmeladova?
- Whoah! How am I supposed to know? I just read the Home Edition. It only has the part about how Raskolnikov kills the crone with an axe, and then turns himself in with repentance. To read about all those other people you’ve got to buy the Professional version or even the Enterprise Edition. We just don’t have that much money.
- Hmm, what madness, where’s the world going!
- It’s there already. Should’ve thought about it fifteen years ago, if not earlier…
It appears that another translation also exists! But I like mine better.
Copyrasts will stop at nothing to preserve their stranglehold on modern culture. So when your favorite hardware vendor offers you a comfortable head-mounted display with a built-in retina scanner (just what the doctor ordered for the security-conscious consumer!) – beware…
Richard Stallman’s “The Right to Read” is well on its way to becoming a true story (a large university I live across the street from is, like many others, aggressively pushing DRM-crippled textbooks.) And so, how much will your grandchildren pay for their Enterprise Editions of Dostoevsky ?
 Edit: A reader has found what appears to be the original author of the story.