Oculus just lost its display guru

Chris Davies - May 6, 2016, 2:08pm CDT
Oculus just lost its display guru

Oculus is losing one of its top display engineers, with Mary Lou Jepsen announcing she is to leave the Facebook-owned VR company. Jepsen revealed her departure while speaking at the Anita Borg Institute’s 2016 Women of Vision Awards Banquet this week, saying that she felt it was time to “work on curing diseases” instead.

Jepsen joined Oculus a little over a year ago, where among other things she led the company’s opto-electronic and display design and manufacturing for products like the Rift virtual reality headset. Before that, she had been head of Google[X]’s display division, responsible for two “moonshot” products that are still confidential.

Leaks from the group suggested one of those projects was an adaptable multi-screen system that could seamlessly link and unlink several displays in real-time.

However, Jepsen arguably made her name in the tech world for her work on the One Laptop Per Child project, then the Pixel Qi company she helped establish to manufacture low-power, ultra-frugal displays.

Now it’s clearly time for another change, with Jepsen saying that she plans to “work on curing diseases using some new imaging technologies I’ve been incubating for a while.”

Exactly what those technologies might be isn’t clear at this stage, though this isn’t the first time we’ve heard about an interest in both digital health and wearables from the engineer.

In 2013, while still employed at Google, a Google Glass-sporting Jepsen described wearable tech as “a way of amplifying you” and predicted that computer-aided memory would one day help those suffering from neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s to remember people and objects around them.

Returning to the subject the following year for a TED talk presentation, Jepsen described how MRI systems could read and encode memories, and even “dump our ideas directly to digital media.”

Though the talk was highly theoretical, Jepsen did touch on some specific use-cases. For instance, using functional magnetic resonance imaging technology (fMRI) “to measure not just oxygenated blood flow, but the hormones and neurotransmitters … and maybe even the direct neural activity, which is the dream.”

This week, the next stage of that progression was outlined even further, with Jepsen saying that her goal is to condense MRI technology into something which could fit into a wearable device.

Imaging sensors that can track blood flow have already been used by some wearables – TomTom had a running watch that used the technology in 2014, for instance – and rumors speculated ahead of the first-generation Apple Watch that it would use optical sensors to figure out blood oxygen in a non-intrusive manner.

Some reports suggested that Apple’s plans there were scaled back after realizing that it would be forced to put the Apple Watch through costly, time-consuming FDA testing if it were to make more serious health monitoring claims than the usual smartwatch fare of pulse and pedometer counts.

For Oculus, it’s undoubtedly a loss, but Jepsen’s research could have far broader implications than even Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of future virtual and augmented reality . Still, Jepsen leaves behind another former Google moonshot expert, after Regina Dugan announced last month that she was leaving the ATAP team to start up a cutting-edge development group called “Building 8” at Facebook.

VIA Anita Borg Institute
MORE Mary Lou Jepsen


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