A college dropout has the computer industry excited and dreaming of radical technology innovations that could help a range of professionals from engineers to doctors.
In borrowed space at a booth at the COMDEX computer trade exposition, Allen Becker and the 10 employees at his Cambridge, Mass., startup, Reflection Technology Inc., have caused a stir with a breakthrough computer screen that is smaller than a business card.While many attendees at this year's show here are disappointed by the absence of major departures from established technology, Becker has them buzzing. His display - tagged the Private Eye - can be held in place like traditional computer screens or mounted in a headset or attached to a pair of glasses.
Private Eye clearly displays a computer screen with black type on a red background or vice versa. It can display graphics as well as 25 lines of type with 80 characters in each line.
Its clarity is as good as many commonly used desktop computer screens, but its potential lies in its size.
"It's bigger than your thumb, but future models will be smaller," says Becker, an MIT engineering dropout. The ultraminiature display weighs less than 2 ounces.
Private Eye's image is magnified to a quite visible size in a way reminiscent of a portable slide viewer.
Becker suggests potential applications might include pocket computers, pocket FAX receivers, exotic video games, radio pagers and engineering and medical instruments.
He refuses to reveal details about how it works, however.
"It's not magic. There are no lasers. It's not inherently expensive," he says. "The idea of a little display close to the eye isn't new. I had to come up with a practical way of doing it."
While show visitors pass quickly from booth to booth, most of which are showing older products, they are pausing to evaluate the Private Eye and thinking of ways to use it.
"I'd give it the invention award," says Rick Wielopolski, vice president of product development at Microtek, a computer maker in Livonia, Mich. "Now we need to come up with the million-dollar idea for it."
One such idea mentioned by a number of observers is a headset-mounted display that doctors could use to monitor a patient's vital signs during surgery.
Becker says the small screen also could display documentation for engineers who need to keep their hands free while working, or in future generations of small computers.
He says several computer companies have expressed interest in Private Eye and that firms in a variety of industries are at work on products that use the display. He estimates that when the product goes into volume production next year that it will sell for about $100.
Becker founded Reflection Technology in 1987 with private and venture capital backing. The Japanese company, Mitsui Comtek Cork, is a minority investor.