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The next big thing: Tiny screens, way up close

Stuart Auerbach doesn't mind being mistaken for a cyborg in airports across the country.

On a trip last month that took the Wellesley venture capitalist to Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, and back home, Auerbach was wearing a pair of narrow, futuristic glasses with integrated headphones.

The glasses, made by MicroOptical Corp. of Westwood, enlarged the image from Auerbach's video iPod, making it seem as though he were looking at a 25-inch screen from about 6 feet away.

Auerbach may have been watching ''Master and Commander," but he looked like ''RoboCop." His glasses, a freebie from his friend Mark Spitzer, the chief executive of MicroOptical, are part of a new wave of products designed to improve on the screens of our tiny portable devices. These next-generation displays will allow you to surf the Web on your cellphone without squinting or catch up on ''Conan" during a transcontinental flight.

For several years, MicroOptical has been trying to convince people that eyewear is much better with monitors built in. Now that the iPod can play video, company executives feel the stars are finally aligned: wearable displays + devices with small screens = major profits. But competitors aren't far behind.

MicroOptical's glasses -- the company calls them the ''Myvu Personal Media Viewer" -- have tiny liquid crystal screens built into each of the temples. (The screens are made by another Massachusetts company, Kopin Corp.)

A kind of periscope relays the image to a spot on the glasses in front of each eye, magnifying it in the process. The wearer can see what's going on above and below the glasses, and can even see through areas that aren't occupied by the image. The glasses, which cost $269, are connected to a battery pack by a thin wire (the pack holds three AAA batteries) that plugs into the iPod.

''We wanted to make them as light and as comfortable as eyewear," says Spitzer. The company also makes wearable displays for surgeons, who can use them to view images from a CT scan, and soldiers who drive Humvees.

Spitzer says that as consumers start to store video on portable devices, they encounter a few drawbacks. The screens are small, they're often washed out by bright sun, and ''you get sick of holding it in your hand right in front of your face," Spitzer says. France Telecom is currently considering how the company's wearable displays might be marketed along with cellphones for watching videos or surfing the Web.

''I didn't feel weird wearing them," Auerbach says, although he did get a lot of questions about how the glasses work and where he got them. ''I don't think I'd recommend wearing these while you walk down the street or go for a drive, but they're definitely ideal for a situation where you're waiting somewhere."

MicroOptical will have competition: Companies like eMagin and Icuiti plan to start selling wearable displays that will be compatible with the iPod. Both companies say their products will offer sharper picture resolution than the Myvu, but they'll also sell for a higher price: close to $600. (The ''video eyewear" from Rochester-based Icuiti can even generate 3-D imagery -- perfect for playing videogames.)

Aside from eyewear, there are other approaches to producing big images from small devices. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, Philips was showing off thin plastic ''rollable" displays using technology from a Cambridge company called E Ink. (Developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the technology creates paperlike displays that use very little power.)

Unfurling a screen from inside a cellphone, for instance, allows the display to be as large as the phone itself -- or larger. Rollable displays could start showing up in the market as early as next year, according to E Ink cofounder Russ Wilcox.

If the room is dark enough, a palm-sized projector might be an option for showing home video snippets on the wall of a restaurant -- or the seat-back of an airplane.

Toshiba, Mitsubishi, and Samsung have each developed lilliputian projectors that use light-emitting diodes instead of incandescent bulbs, so they run cooler and the bulbs don't burn out as often. (They can also run on a battery, unlike today's power-hungry conference room projectors.) Toshiba's version, already on sale in Japan, can even be connected to a cellphone.

At the MacWorld trade show in San Francisco last month, MicroOptical's vice president of sales, Bruce Lampert, was manning the company's booth. An executive from the Apple Store had dropped by to check out the new product, and he seemed impressed, Lampert said.

Lampert said the company had brought 50 pairs of its Myvu glasses to the show, and just a few minutes after the convention hall had opened, the booth was buzzing with activity.

Afterward, Spitzer confirmed that the company had sold all 50 pairs. ''We grossly underestimated how many we'd need," he said. ''We didn't think there'd be that much demand."

The company has managed to whet the appetites of early adopters. So you may see an increasing number of cyborg travelers, the next time you're in an airport departure lounge.

Scott Kirsner is a freelance writer in San Francisco who maintains a blog on entertainment and technology, cinematech.blogspot.com. He can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

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