Jeff Bier’s Impulse Response—Is Your Brain Big Enough?

Submitted by Jeff Bier on Wed, 09/24/2014 - 22:01

Do you ever feel like you could use a bigger brain? One of my all-time favorite Dilbert cartoons is the 1994 strip depicting a consultant so smart he had to "wrap his brain around his torso." In contrast, I often feel as if my brain could benefit from an external accelerator. As an engineer, I've often wondered when humans will be able to boost our brainpower with electronic devices.

One could argue that we already do augment our brains via electronics. Through smartphones, an amazing amount of information is at our fingertips. But the necessity to type (or very carefully speak) search terms into the phone yields an experience that is far from seamless. To me, a smartphone is less like an extension of my brain and more like a brainy classmate who knows the answers to many questions. It's the difference between today's Google Maps app on my phone, which announces turn-by-turn directions, and tomorrow's technology, which will project a path onto the actual roadway for me to follow.

If our goal is to help people understand the world around them and accomplish things, there's enormous power in integrating and synchronizing the data and analytic power of the Internet with the actual physical world in which we live. And it turns out that we have a way to do this: augmented reality. Augmented reality technology has been around for decades, but has been hampered by bulky and expensive hardware, lack of critical mass in R&D investment and limited creativity in devising applications.

Fortunately, this has recently started to change in a big way. In the past year or two, augmented reality has begun to be deployed at scale in a range of applications from warehouses to retail stores to toys. Perhaps one of the most compelling augmented reality applications is a wearable device I wrote about last year from OrCam, which enables sight-impaired people to navigate more easily in a world rich with visual information. Wearable augmented reality devices are also being deployed in a variety of industrial applications, such as warehouses, to improve productivity and safety.

Processing camera output data with sufficient speed and fidelity to keep the real and virtual worlds tightly synchronized is key to augmented reality. Under real-world conditions, this requires an enormous amount of processing power. Cramming that processing power, along with a camera and one or two micro displays, into a pair of glasses is a very daunting engineering challenge. Delivering all of that at a cost point suitable for consumers is doubly challenging. But given the capabilities of current "smart glasses," and the ramped-up industry investment in this space, I'm confident we'll see consumer-priced robust smart glasses within the next few years.

Smart glasses enabled by augmented reality are as close to an "external brain pack" as I expect to get, and I can't wait. I'll pay good money for the app that guides me to the location where I parked my car at the mall. And for the app that recognizes the face of a colleague from across the hotel lobby and reminds me of his name. And for the one that tells me that a copy of the book I just pulled off the shelf at the bookstore is already on my shelf at home.

While smart glasses that deliver a seamless augmented reality experience at a consumer price point may be a few years away, you can get a taste of the future today with sophisticated augmented reality apps on your smartphone or tablet. Two of my favorites are the IKEA catalog app, which lets you visualize how IKEA furnishings will look in your space, and the Colar app, which brings kids' artwork to life.

Have you used an augmented reality product or application? If so, I'd love to hear about your experience. Post a comment here or send me your feedback at

Jeff Bier is president of BDTI and founder of the Embedded Vision Alliance.

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