Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality (MR), Extended Reality (XR)…these oft-heard terms could be right around the corner, ready to confirm the dream of augmented reality for everyone and supplanting smartphones as the next big consumer revolution. Companies have invested lots of money to develop the required technology-enabling building blocks in-house, or let others develop the technology for them – for example, consider the more than $2B raised by Magic Leap.
With Apple buying Akonia Holographics, a startup focused on making lenses for AR glasses, it appears the world’s biggest consumer-oriented company is making a move towards AR. Yole Développement asked analyst Zine Bouhamri, author of the Displays and Optical Vision Systems for VR, AR & MR 2018 report, to explain the impetus behind Apple’s move.
Yole Développement: AR has been talked about for years, but how is it that it has not yet replaced the smartphone? How far are we from this happening?
Zine Bouhamri: Well, this has not happened yet because the technological challenges are such that today, even though AR products exist, they are expensive and unattractive for consumers. Consumers want something colorful, well-illumined in all outside lighting conditions, lightweight, energy-efficient, with a large field of view, and many other things. But most of all, consumers want something with a sleek form factor, something that looks like a regular pair of glasses and that is almost invisible. When walking down the street, nobody wants to look like they just walked out of an 80s movie.
YD: Can someone achieve this sleek form factor with lenses? Is this why Apple bought a startup focused on making lenses?
ZB: First of all: yes, you can target a sleek form factor with lenses.
You have to understand that to build an AR headset, it is important to have a very small display source that doesn’t occupy too big of a volume like that of today’s consumer VR headsets (PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive). A small display source means a sleeker form factor, which is what consumers want. But this does not mean you can put it in front of the eyes, because the purpose of AR is to augment reality without occluding it. You must be able to see the world while computer-generated data is superimposed on top of your view. This means that the display is not directly in front of the eyes, but you need to bring its image to them.
To accomplish this, you have two main possibilities. One is the “regular optics” way (Google Glass, Meta, etc.) where you use mirrors, spherical mirrors and such. But in order to target consumer requirements, especially the sleek form factor, you put yourself at a huge disadvantage regarding field of view. Alternatively, you can take the “waveguiding” approach (Microsoft, Vuzix, etc.), but as this is not a very efficient optical method, a lot depends on the display efficiency – meaning you must produce a much brighter image in order to have something bright enough coming to the eye (of course, MicroLEDs being right around the corner could be of tremendous help with this issue). On the positive side, you get something thin and lightweight, which can fit onto a lens.
Field of view versus form factor for regular and waveguiding optics
(Source: Displays & Optical Vision Systems for VR, AR & MR 2018, Yole Développement, June 2018)
This way, you can target something consumer-friendly. Take the example of Vuzix, which has designed a product that resembles a regular pair of glasses. Vuzix did such a good job that it won four CES Innovation awards this year for its Vuzix Blade®. Vuzix has adopted a simple, pragmatic approach that may bring the dream of AR closer to reality.
On the flip side, when you oversell what your technology can do, you run the risk of disappointing people. Consider the poor reception to Magic Leap’s first product, which likely used wave-guiding. Palmer Luckey, the noted co-founder of the Oculus VR headset, described Magic Leap’s failure as “a tragedy in the classical sense.”
YD: With all of these products being released, do you believe that the solution has been found and that AR for everyone is actually right around the corner?
ZB: Well, not exactly. Remember I mentioned the current products’ poor optical efficiency (the amount of light delivered by the display source will not quite reach the user’s eye). This presents a difficulty when you want to use your AR headset outside in bright sunlight. This is why you see many headsets with shades in front of the lenses: the shades filter out ambient light, compensating for the low amount of light received from the display source.
Now, returning to how one can make the ideal AR lenses, you have two main options:
The first way is what we call “surface relief gratings”, which basically means you create micro-structures on your glass that will shape the light. These structures will bend the display light that comes from near the ear for example, and redirect it to the eye. Creating these microstructures necessitates very costly semiconductor-grade equipment and a precise, refined process to attain a manufacturing level that will make these optical elements work the way you want. Ultimately this is a very complicated procedure, so much so that the yield is very poor, and so too optical efficiency.
The Vuzix Blade®
The second way is what we call “holographic elements”. Holography has been around for a long time and is used to “imprint” an optical function (such as bending the light to make it go to the eye) into a material dispensed on a lens. In terms of wave-guiding, this alternative has been around for a while, but mass manufacturing was out of the question until very recently. It wasn’t until in 2017, when some players claimed to have found the solution to mass production at a cheaper capital investment and with a better yield, that holographic elements gained traction. Some of these players even claim that their optical efficiency is around 10x better. This kind of efficiency would make it a better solution for cost and everyday use (i.e. outside), since for a given display light you would distribute more light to the eye, which would then be readable on lenses.
YD: So what do you think of Apple’s move?
ZB: Apple obviously thought this through. Akonia Holographics has long been involved in holographic element lenses, and Apple has shown great interest in AR. In the company’s Q1 2018 earnings call, Tim Cook said: “I see AR as being profound, […] AR has the ability to amplify human performance instead of isolating humans. So I am a huge, huge believer in AR. We put a lot of energy on AR. We’re moving very fast.”
To this point, much energy has been put into developing ARKit, the developer framework that Apple introduced in the iOS 11 and which allows any iPhone or iPad to transform into an AR machine. But for replacing the smartphone and producing AR headsets, this acquisition of Akonia Holographics seems like an interesting choice for Apple. Akonia has the intellectual property and seems to have the technology. With Apple funds driving R&D, consumer-focused AR headsets may be upon us.
(Source: Akonia Holographics)
What is even more interesting is that while Apple has filed many patents over the years, the Akonia acquisition is one of the first official signs of Apple’s involvment in AR hardware. And given how Apple disrupted the consumer market with the iPhone, it’s exciting to think about what they have in store for AR!
As a Technology & Market Analyst, Displays, Dr. Zine Bouhamri 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. Dr. 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).
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