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Head Up Displays for Technical Communication

Think about bi-focal lenses for a minute. You know, the glasses with two lenses: one at the top and one at the bottom. The bottom one is for reading, because you look down when you read, don't you? Because a book is on a desk, or on your lap, or on a table, or in your hands. What about if things were different... if the text you want to read was displayed in "thin air" on the wall at the back of the room. Or on the sky.

Now think about the movie Top Gun. (Some of you might be too young to have seen this when it first came out, but it was released at least three Tom Cruise marriage's ago. But I'm sure most people have seen it, or the parody starring Charlie Sheen. But I digress...) In Top Gun, you may remember seeing gun-sights and cross-hairs and warning messages and airspeeds displayed as green text on the cockpit windshield of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. That was an early "Head Up Display (HUD)". By now, they are far more sophisticated. Some cars now have "HUDs" installed as standard, displaying speed, distance, and messages onto the windscreen, focussed on the horizon. You don't need to move your head down to read; you can keep your head up. If you have a smart phone and a dirty windscreen, you can even download a "HUD" app, place the phone on your dashboard, and reflect an inverted speedo readout onto the windscreen.

But there's another type of "HUD" that's attracting the buzz at the moment: Google Glass. Glass isn't the only product of its type on the market (there are dozens), but it attracts the most publicity. These "wearable technology" products display text in a tiny HUD in a pair of lens-less spectacles. The text displayed depends on the application; it could be the time, next appointment, alerts... but it could be procedural information, or checklists, or product descriptions. When coupled with a camera able to identify objects that you see, this technology can enable innovative new ways to deliver technical information. Virgin Atlantic are currently trialing Google Glass with their business lounge staff at Heathrow Airport, so that important information is always in front of their staff, whether their heads are down or up.

HUDs may have implications for technical communication. Obviously, documenting HUD devices and applications is one area (there is even a police motorcycle helmet where the whole visor is a HUD). It's hard to predict, but perhaps documentation could be displayed on a HUD? Checklists and other procedural information would seem good candidates. Technical writing techniques such as minimalism and separation of content and form will help make it possible for us to deliver to this new form; to a layer above reality.

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Originally published...

This article was originally published in the IconLogic I Came, I Saw, I Learned blog and newsletter in April 2014.