What happens when a designer with previous ties to Disney starts brainstorming with a group of veteran “Imagineers” and a Microsoft researcher who just so happens to be a Stanford University and Caltech alum? Well, the answer has something to do with innovation, and in this case, that innovation applies to a new type of “multi-view” pixel display that allows for people to see different messaging from the same pixel depending on their viewing angle. The company is Misapplied Sciences, their product is the Parallel Reality “Magic Pixel,” and the sky is really the limit for its ability to maximize impressions and customize audience experiences.
While conventional pixels each emit one color of light in all directions, the Parallel Reality pixel can send different light colors in thousands or even millions of directions, allowing for personalized “viewing zones.” When coupled with location technology and sensors, highly specific content can be distributed to particular consumers in real time as they move throughout their day. Misapplied Sciences has applied for 18 patents related to this technology, three of which have been granted. Approved patents are for a multi-view architectural lighting system, a computational pipeline and architecture for a multi-view display as well as multi-view traffic signage that shows customized content to each vehicle.
This video shows a graphic Parallel Reality Display as seen from four cameras placed a couple of feet apart. Each view shows a unique video.
This miniature tech revolution is emerging from the shadows of what used to be a retail spot in a Redmond, Washington strip mall. The company has been toiling away in relative secrecy for years from these unlikely headquarters using furniture from a University of Washington surplus store, and now Parallel Reality is more or less ready to dazzle the world. This is buzzworthy because, although glasses-free and device-free 3D visual technology is making strides in the industry, we don’t yet have that reliable source of personalized data jumping out at our naked eyes without enabling smartphone addiction and the cascade of social problems that come with that.
When asked about this breakthrough technology’s impetus and the thought process behind it, Misapplied Sciences CTO and Chairman Paul Dietz had this to say:
“I was thinking about personalized experiences in public places. When guests come to your venue, you want to address their individual needs, but you need to do this in a way that scales for crowds. In many places, the current solution is to include signage that addresses every possible need. This quickly leads to information overload, where there is so much irrelevant data that it makes it hard to find what you want. Alternatively, smartphones can provide a direct channel to each guest, providing just the right information. But getting your visitors to run your app can be pretty challenging. And even if you do succeed, the screen becomes a physical barrier between the guest and the environment. Phone zombies are notorious for walking into things and ignoring the people around them.”
Parallel Reality has the potential to circumvent many of these obstacles mentioned above. Over the past four years, Dietz and his group of innovators have gone from original single pixel lab prototypes to humble graphic displays playing full motion video at 60 frames per second while independently targeting many locations. Now Misapplied Sciences is developing systems that can serve crowds from 100 people up to many thousands, delivering individually selected content to each person. And there may not be a specific application to associate the product with, but that’s because Parallel Reality is potentially groundbreaking and useful across a wide variety of applications including but not limited to personalized wayfinding, retail kiosks, flight data boards, scoreboards and even theaters of various kinds.
This video shows a high-performance Parallel Reality Display that has been set up to show a different image in a specific region. The wooden frame is added to show where the region lies. As the camera pans back and forth, you can see that the view in that region is completely different than outside of it.
“Fundamentally, these are displays, and what they can show is only limited by your imagination. That said, we expect that entertainment and retail establishments will be among our first customers. Our displays can make a venue dramatically more accessible by providing directions, captioning shows in your language, showing information about your favorite players, directing crowds, suggesting appropriate products and services and generally reducing the amount of irrelevant clutter. On the more whimsical side, there are many entertainment experiences that will be powered by Parallel Reality displays.”
If and when a definite and individualized advertising application goes to market, there will be plenty in the digital signage space shouting from the hilltops that the vision of Minority Report is finally upon us. Indeed, it has become the go-to pop-culture reference for an industry looking to revive the retail landscape with sleek, new features. For those that may not have read the Philip K. Dick source material or seen the 2002 big screen adaptation, the setting is a not-so-distant future in which crimes are predicted by “pre-cogs” before they happen, and similarly, specific products are marketed to specific customers in public spaces based on past purchases or biometric markers. As the homepage of the Misapplied Sciences website says, “It sounds like science fiction, but it exists now.”
At last, businesses can push products and/or services in the real world based on brand loyalties and predictive analytics without the help of Steven Spielberg’s movie magic entourage or Hollywood’s CGI wizardry? When someone inevitably declares “Mission Accomplished” to this end, there will be at least a few of us cringing — not because the technology isn’t revolutionary and amazing — but because Minority Report is not, and never will be, an ideal to shoot for. It is a dystopian cautionary tale based on a short story by a sci-fi author who meant to warn us about an unsustainable future where privacy was considered secondary to instant gratification and maximized profits. In other words, customers (a term that applies to all of us after all) will eventually resent the saturation level no matter how personalized. According to the Misapplied Sciences team, they have ideas for workarounds like a la carte anonymity in select environments and advertising opt-ins that would at least minimize ethical issues and privacy violations. Regardless, breakthrough technologies like this will force us all to deal with these more abstract issues as an industry, and furthermore, as a culture.
In normal use, a Parallel Reality Display shows each viewer a single, personalized content stream. In order to see more of them, we set up mirrors in front of the display at different viewpoints. From the right spot, you can see the display reflected in each of the 12 mirrors, revealing what is visible from those viewpoints.
So what comes next for the company? With a modest $3.4 million in equity investment and another $900,000 from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research program, is there another disruptor technology in the works, or will the company’s immediate future be more about refining the approach for Parallel Reality?
“I think people will be very surprised by how quickly our systems will improve across all dimensions (resolution/pixel pitch, the number of distinct viewers we can support, the cost, etc.),” said Dietz. “But I think the most surprising thing will be the diverse applications that arise. At its heart, this is an entirely new medium. History has shown us that new media technologies often begin by addressing rather narrow, practical concerns, and that over time, they find wide adoption for more social purposes. Alexander Graham Bell imagined the telephone as a way for bosses to talk to employees on the factory floor. The first home PCs were marketed for storing recipes. The Internet began as a way for computers to robustly communicate in wartime. With Parallel Reality displays, the early applications will most likely be very pragmatic. But in the future, when the world is filled with these displays, it might well become the dominant way you stay connected with the people and things you care about.”
To put it another way, Parallel Reality is undoubtedly and deservedly a part of our collective future scape, but using it to advertise is most likely just the beginning.