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Business and innovation

Realistic visions for augmented-reality headsets

07 Feb 2020 Margaret Harris
A man standing in front of a screen showing an image of glasses
Demanding requirements VividQ chief executive Darran Milne outlines the need for low-power augmented reality headsets during his talk at the Photonics West AR/VR/MR conference. (Courtesy: Margaret Harris)

Two years ago, when Bernard Kress kicked off the inaugural Photonics West session on augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality (AR, VR and MR), he spoke to a standing-room-only crowd. This year, the AR/VR/MR event was officially big enough to have its own conference – yet the cavernous Moscone Center ballroom felt empty, and there was little of the buzz that made the 2018 show so exciting.

Kress, an optical architect in Microsoft’s Hololens project, was open about the change. “Between 2016 and 2018 was the ‘age of euphoria’ for our field,” he told the audience. “Anybody who could spell ‘AR’ correctly got $20m for their ideas.” Since then, the field has gone through what Kress called a “period of readjustment” – in other words, the bubble burst. However, in his view, the AR/VR/MR community is now turning a corner, as hard work begins to pay off and hype gives way to reality.

There was certainly plenty of hard work on show during the two-day event. As in the 2018 conference, several companies brought headsets for attendees to test. Among them was a UK-based start-up called VividQ whose chief executive, Darran Milne, gave a talk on Monday with the arresting (unofficial) title “Everyday consumer AR: just how screwed are we?” As Milne explained, one of the toughest constraints on AR displays is the amount of power they consume, which affects both battery life and user comfort. “You cannot have two watts of power sitting on your face,” Milne said bluntly. “You will get a hot head.”

With this in mind, VividQ’s designers based their device on a liquid-crystal-on-silicon (LCOS) display, which uses less power than a laser-beam-scanning display and can also support 3D holographic effects. Before I tried it on, VividQ’s head of sales and licensing, Richard Taylor-Colville, reminded me that it was a prototype, built with off-the-shelf components as a way of showing manufacturers what could be done. “We’re trying to be honest,” Taylor-Colville said. “The industry isn’t being honest with itself. There are lots of great components out there, but people aren’t working together enough to integrate them.”

Thus warned, I entered the screened-off area for VividQ’s demonstrations. There, Tom Durant, the company’s chief development officer, handed me the headset and asked if I knew my intrapupillar distance – in other words, the distance between my eyes. “A surprising number of people here do,” he remarked, settling the bulky device around my ears and taking out an Allen key to adjust it. Several minutes later, I could sort of make out a fuzzy green alien hovering in front of me, with a larger red alien floating behind it. Given the short time available, Durant declared this good enough and handed me a paper card with a QR-like code printed on it. When I looked at the paper, the green alien transformed into a spaceship, and I could see bolts floating through the air towards me – a bit like a cartoon version of the film Gravity.

Both the spaceship and the alien showed off the headset’s 3D capabilities, but in other respects, Taylor-Colville’s warnings were spot-on. The VividQ prototype is too heavy and clunky to wear for more than a few minutes, and the images it displays are, as yet, too fuzzy to be pleasant or useful. As a proof of principle, it’s brilliant; as a consumer device, it’s nowhere near ready – as its designers would surely acknowledge.

The second headset I tried was made by WaveOptics, which specializes in developing waveguides that steer the light from the projector into the device-wearer’s field of view. In addition to the waveguides, which won a coveted Prism Award at Photonics West for best vision-technology product, the WaveOptics headset also incorporates high-refractive-index glass made by Corning. When I put it on, I found the display bright and sharp, capable of superimposing video-quality moving images on the scene around me. The headset was also much more recognizably glasses-like than the VividQ prototype. Even so, I found them too heavy for long-term wear, and their wide field of view, though impressive, was also somewhat distracting. If I’d tried to walk down the street with them, I think the graphics on the display would have interfered with my normal vision too much.

A man sitting at a table with three pairs of glasses in front of him

The third and final headset I tried was made by a German company called Tooz Technologies, which is a joint venture between the telecommunications firm T-Mobile and the glass manufacturer Zeiss. Tooz has managed the tricky task of combining waveguides with curved prescription glass lenses, and of the devices I tested, these were the only ones that felt like something I could wear all day. Although the display was not as bright or as sharp as the WaveOptics headset, it was good enough to show me bus timetables, maps, text messages and so on – exactly the sort of thing I, personally, can imagine wanting to look at while walking around an unfamiliar city.

That may not sound like much, but if AR/VR/MR is going to enter what Kress called the “age of reason”, it’s going to need pragmatism as well as ambition – and collaboration as well as competition. “We’ve promised a lot to the consumer,” Milne reminded the audience. “Can we actually do it?”

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