Microvision gets a heads-up on auto service market

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June 8, 2004 — When we think of head-up displays, we tend to think of supersonic jet pilots careening through the upper atmosphere with data hovering before their eyes. But Microvision, a maker of MEMS-based head-up display technology, is also pursuing more mundane niches like wearable displays for automotive technicians.

The company is ramping up efforts to sell a $3,995 device called the Nomad Expert Technician System, which lets automotive technicians access manuals and other service information while they work.

Industry analysts say the move is not a surprise. “Wearable computing has drawn a lot of interest,” said Marlene Bourne, a senior MEMS analyst at the research firm In-Stat/MDR. But as high-volume applications move along more slowly, she says, companies are reaching out into profitable niche applications.

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Microvision isn’t releasing any sales figures yet, but a spokesperson said the company is taking orders from auto dealerships and service centers. It expects to begin formal product shipments by the end of the second quarter.

Microvision’s technology uses a MEMS-based chip that writes an image directly on the viewer’s retina, creating the illusion of a full-size image. The chip is housed inside headgear designed not to impede ordinary vision. The headgear is wired to a hip-worn computer running a special version of Microsoft Windows.

The computer accesses reference material via a wireless connection from a computer at the shop or located elsewhere on the Internet.

Service technicians are apparently impressed. Microvision has completed two efficiency studies, according to Bruce Ridley, industrial marketing manager. A study with Honda showed a 39-percent efficiency gain. A second study with Volvo showed a 31-percent gain.

“Not only can they make more money,” Ridley said. “But the customer gets the vehicle back faster … and there’s a higher quality of service.” Ridley said technicians are less distracted when they have reference information right in front of them. The system also ensures that they have the most updated material.

Microvision originally introduced the product last year at Honda and Acura dealers. Based on the introduction, Honda plans to roll out its version of the system to dealers and technicians this year.

Down the road, Microvision intends to market the product to a wider variety of industries. Ridley said the automotive service market is a good match because it has a large market with specific problems, and because digital content is already available. He said the next obvious applications are inspecting, such as that done by insurance adjustors, and process control in large factories.

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