Is the ‘microLED for AR’ dream coming true? A discussion about the recent Facebook and Plessey deal

The hype for augmented reality (AR) headsets seems to have lowered a bit and the envisioned mass adoption does not seem to have happened. Most of the products and applications we see today are mainly targeted at professional applications, such as logistics, healthcare and training. But the consumer dream, and the subsequent consumer electronics revolution of the AR headset replacing the smartphone, still seems to be far from being reachable today.

The technology plays an important part in this. Apart from the cost and the form factor that the consumer is waiting for, there is the issue of performance. As we are all children of the flat-panel industry, we are used to having close-to-perfect displays in front of our eyes. They offer high resolution, bright and vivid colors and superb image quality. Transposing that to something that is displayed on lenses set on a pair of glasses frames is no simple task.

Yole Développement’s upcoming Displays and Optics for AR & VR report, which will be available at the end of April, analyzes the status of optics for aforementioned headsets. Waveguiding technologies seem to be the path that most manufacturers are targeting. As progress has been made over the past two years in terms of efficiency, uniformity and so on, we have seen the supply chain starting to structure itself. Partnerships and acquisitions have happened along the way, such as those between WaveOptics and Goertek, Digilens and Foxconn, and Apple’s Akonia acquisition.

But optics alone cannot make the AR dream to come true. Their optical efficiency is very poor, as more than 90% of the light injected into the guides does not make it to the user’s eyes! To make things worse, their light acceptance angle is very narrow, which, for most types of display engines, translates into poor in-coupling efficiency. That means the bulk of the light emitted by the display does not even enter the waveguide.

AR therefore requires a very bright and efficient display engine associated with the optics. Incumbent technologies cannot deliver enough for daily outdoor usage, where the AR optical system competes with ambient light. That is where the microLED dream can happen. They are brighter, more efficient, more compact and offer infinite contrast. They are everything that the industry is waiting for. Lots of hype surrounds this upcoming technology, especially since Apple’s acquisition of Luxvue back in 2014. In its upcoming MicroLED Displays – Intellectual Property Status & Landscape 2020 report available on April 15, Yole analyzes microLED technology and the industry landscape through patenting activity. This provides a lot of information about the strategic and technological paths that companies are following for emerging technologies.

One can see in the figure below how microdisplays for AR can be manufactured in many different ways, with many different players involved.

YOLE_MicroLED AR article EVI-Full color microLED microdisplays-architectures, challenges and players

Alongside Aledia, Jade Bird Display and Lumens among others, Plessey has been a prominent player in the microLED microdisplay field for a few years now. The company shifted its focus from lighting applications to microLED microdisplays in late 2017 after new investors re-capitalized the company and took over management. The company has been making rapid progress thanks to a fully integrated in-house GaN-on-silicon fab, which enables fast experiments and prototype turnaround. Besides Aledia, they seem to be the only company working on GaN-on-silicon, which promises ways of manufacturing in regular CMOS foundries up to 8” or 12” wafers, allowing for a compelling cost structure down the road. Noticeably, the backplanes required to drive those high performance microLED microdisplays require advanced CMOS technology nodes often available only in 8” or even 12” wafers. Growing the microLED structure on similar size wafers greatly improves manufacturing efficiency when it comes to the bonding process where the LED and CMOS wafers are attached together, connecting each pixel to the driver circuit. Plessey has been able to show rapid and regular progress towards AR by demonstrating prototypes at multiple trade shows and conferences.  Their partnership with Compound Photonics recently allowed them to present a first-ever prototype with a 3µm pixel pitch, supporting an industry standard MIPI interface.

Facebook, as one of the major AR and virtual reality (VR) companies, has put significant effort into microLEDs, by acquiring Oculus, which then acquired both microLED startups InfiniLED and mLED. On March 30th, the company announced a deal with Plessey under which it gets full exclusivity on the company’s technology and manufacturing capacity. As all the AR companies are waiting for the microLED opportunity to materialize, this unusual partnership raises a lot of questions. For Plessey, being exclusive closes down a lot of opportunities. For Facebook it allows for a steady supply, while pulling the rug from under its competitors’ feet. But while the choice of Plessey as a partner makes sense for all the reasons discussed above, why not simply acquire the company? Would the uncertain COVID-19 and still confusing Brexit context and associated regulatory issues have delayed the deal for too long or even made it impossible? Is this more of a first step and technical deal, whereby Plessey has to deliver a series of technical and/or manufacturing milestones that could ultimately lead to a full acquisition?

In any case, the deal is a major shakeup for the industry and raises hope that the AR dream might come true sooner than expected.

About the authors

As a Technology & Market Analyst, Displays, Zine Bouhamri, PhD is a member of the Photonics, Sensing & Display division at Yole Développement (Yole).
Zine manages the day to day production of technology & market reports, as well as custom consulting projects. He is also deeply involved in the business development of the Displays unit activities at Yole.
Previously, Zine was in charge of numerous R&D programs at Aledia. During more than three years, he developed strong technical expertise as well as a detailed understanding of the display industry.
Zine is author and co-author of several papers and patents.
Zine Bouhamri holds an Electronics Engineering Degree from the National Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble (France), one from the Politecnico di Torino (Italy), and a Ph.D. in RF & Optoelectronics from Grenoble University (France).

Eric Virey, PhD. serves as a Principal Display Market and Technologies Analyst within the Photonics, Sensing & Display division at Yole Développement (Yole).
Eric is a daily contributor to the development of the Display activity at Yole, with a large collection of market and technology reports on display technologies, Quantum Dots, MicroLEDs, TFT backplanes as well as multiple custom consulting projects: business strategy, identification of investments or acquisition targets, due diligences (buy/sell side), market and technology analysis, cost modelling, technology scouting, etc.
Eric has spoken in more than 50 industry conferences worldwide over the last 10 years. He has been interviewed and quoted by leading media over the world including: The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, Bloomberg, Financial Review, Forbes, Technology Review, etc. He is also a regular contributor to various display industry media and organizations.
Previously Eric has held various R&D, engineering, manufacturing and business development positions with Fortune 500 Company Saint-Gobain in France and the United States.
Eric Virey holds a PhD in Optoelectronics from the National Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble. He is currently based in Portland, OR.

Related reports:

Displays & Optical Vision Systems for VR, AR & MR 2018 (2020 edition coming late April!)
Technological reality is piercing the hype for virtual and augmented realities, reminding everyone about all the challenges that are yet to be overcome.

MicroLED Displays : Intellectual Property Landscape

MicroLED Displays : Intellectual Property Landscape 2018 (2020 edition coming this April!)
Which companies own patents in microLED display? What are their major thrust areas and portfolio strength?

MicroLED Displays 2019
Significant progress over the last 18 months, but many challenges remain before ramping up for large volume consumer applications.

SP19463-Magic Leap One Teardown

Magic Leap One – Augmented Reality Headset
Magic Leap’s long-awaited release in the augmented reality market.


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