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Bringing data to your eye: Device may put 'dashboard' on windshields soon


The beamed computer data reflected in the tiny eyepiece is similar to what actor Arnold Schwarzenegger saw pop up in his field of vision in the popular "Terminator" movies.

Microvision Inc. Chief Executive Rick Rutkowski just hopes his laser-scanning technology company -- which can shrink what is now seen on a normal computer screen essentially into an eyeglass-sized piece of plastic -- will have its turn at success.

Last month, the Bothell company received a well-noticed boost when Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates praised its technology and how motorists could use it when he spoke to the Detroit Free Press about "smart" automobiles and the future.

"It's about defining the market and getting there as the wave crests," said Rutkowski, 49. "We're seeing that computing is moving beyond the laptop computer. It's moving to ubiquitous or pervasive computing."

He was referring to a market shift toward smaller, high-quality technological devices, such as Apple Computer's iPod portable music player.

The shift, he anticipates, will bring a demand for new and different types of computer display systems in automobiles, airplanes, cell phones and eyeglasses.

He hopes Microvision will fill that gap by providing hardware to distribute software in smaller formats. In addition to boosting productivity and convenience, the company could revolutionize the video game industry by giving players a close-up, more intense experience.

Microvision's technology relies on a mirror, less than 1 square millimeter, which bounces lasers through a lens and is reflected onto the eye. That light is hundreds of times below anything harmful to the retina, according to the company.

In February 2004, Microvision introduced the technology in its Nomad Expert Technician System, a wireless computer unit with a reflective eyepiece that can be attached to headgear or clipped to a baseball cap.

The lightweight system, which retails for about $3,900, is geared for automobile mechanics, doctors or anyone who needs volumes of information in a hands-free, mobile environment.

General Dynamics, a defense industry contractor, has bought 165 rugged versions of the system for the Army's Stryker Brigade troops, based at Fort Lewis, according to the company.

Microvision has not reported the total number of Nomad units sold so far. But its first-quarter 2005 revenue was $4 million, up from $2.7 million during the same period a year ago.

Russell Hannigan, a Microvision business development director, said the technology also reminds him of the "Terminator" movies. "But being cool is one thing," he said. "Turning this technology into a product is the real dream."

Microvision is working with several companies, including Microsoft, to use the technology to advance automobiles.

With BMW, Audi and Volkswagen, the company is developing a heads-up display system for windshields.

That product uses the company's core technology and could beam speed, tire pressure, map directions and a global positioning system onto a small portion of the windshield.

Microvision says that method of delivering information is safer than drivers looking down at a dashboard and possibly becoming distracted.

"I want to know who called on my cell phone," Hannigan said, referring to one possibility for beamed information.

Although some automobile companies are using an LCD version of a heads-up display, Microvision argues that its product, which could sell for up to $400 to automobile companies, requires less space in the dashboard.

Currently, the company is working to ensure that the heads-up windshield display can function in extreme weather conditions.

Despite Gates' compliment, one Seattle analyst said Microvision's challenge is with selling its products -- not so much with its technology.

"The problem with anything new like this is that you need to get through a tipping point of acceptance before the technology makes money," said Alan Robinson, director of research for Delafield Hambrecht, who called the technology impressive. He said he does not own Microvision stock.

His firm does not receive investment banking money from the company, but it does buy and sell Microvision stock.

In the Kent area, Chris Stephens, a manager for a tire and service center, said his staff has been using a Nomad system since March. Microvision asked his center to use one on a trial basis.

So far, Stephens has been pleased, saying his mechanics are saving up to 20 minutes with an automobile's alignment. "Instead of going to a large computer, to see where you are going to adjust the car, you can be looking at the suspension and see the illustration (in the eyepiece)," he said.

He and his workers have encountered only a few minor problems, such as software glitches.

Rutkowski is banking that consumers will flock to the company's products, just as they did with other companies when cell phones and electronic goods entered the market.

"We'll need new kinds of display solutions in the future," he said.


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