February 13, 2018

The pursuit of a thinner, lighter virtual reality future with cutting-edge optical components

The pursuit of a thinner, lighter virtual reality future with cutting-edge optical components

The delivery of first augmented reality (AR), then virtual reality (VR), and now mixed reality (MR) systems requires cutting-edge optical technology—technology that could help AR/VR/MR headsets get smaller and smaller in the coming years. According to Laser Focus World, “Market projections still show that augmented reality and virtual reality will reach $108 B by 2021.” The growth in the industry will be fueled in part by improvements in the tools that provide virtual prototyping of AR/VR/MR systems. According to a VR market research report by Grand View Research, “Presently, the hardware segment is the largest segment contributing a major share to the overall revenue.” Virtual prototyping can help companies get these hardware components to market faster—and smaller.

End-user applications of AR/VR/MR

While AR allows for the real-world environment to be enhanced by computer-generated elements and VR puts people in a completely new, virtual world using haptics and other sensory inputs, MR is a combination of the two. The popular game, Pokémon Go, is perhaps the most recognizable application of AR, but there are a plethora of applications for AR/VR/MR beyond gaming, including aerospace, defense, education and training, industrial, healthcare, and many other fields. And developers who worked in the early stages of augmented reality intended it that way. Steve Mann, known for his pioneering work in the creation of the MIT Wearable Computing Lab, was among the first to create technologies meant for everyday use across vertical markets. One example is his EyeTap Digital Eye Glass, a general-purpose seeing aid that could have great use in any field where the user would benefit from real-time interactive information that is largely visual in nature—including sports, construction, and business. (Source: Wikipedia)

Now, headlines tout AR/VR/MR innovations that:

The demand for smaller AR/VR/MR devices

As Scott McEldowney of Oculus Research, USA explained at a recent presentation, creating light, “go-anywhere” glasses to replace the awkward VR goggles of today is instrumental for the future of augmented, virtual, and mixed reality. According to Optics & Photonics News, he envisions a world in which we can “‘mix those virtual experiences seamlessly with the real world’ in a lightweight AR package. While that leap will require technology that doesn’t exist today, said McEldowney, he pointed out that now-commonplace utilities such as Facebook and Uber would once have been equally unimaginable. ‘It may seem far-fetched,’ he said. ‘But remember, we’ve already seen it happen once.’”

Companies delivering headsets that enable VR/MR experiences—including perhaps the three best-known: HTC (Vive), Oculus (Rift), and Microsoft (HoloLens)—know that getting there means that display technologies are key. These include both head-mounted displays (HMDs) and head-up displays (HUDs). Engineers will need to combine nanoscale optical components used to create computer-generated images with macroscopic optics used to relay images to the human eye. Zemax is working with companies such as Lumerical on merging these technologies.

Though McEldowney made the thinner-and-lighter future seem far away, companies like WaveOptics are doing their part to fuel the revolution right now. “WaveOptics is developing optical waveguide technology and modules for augmented reality heads-up displays,” as reported in VentureBeat. “The core of the WaveOptics technology is a waveguide that is able to channel light input from a micro display positioned at the periphery of a lens made of glass—or in the future, plastic. Unlike conventional technologies that rely on cumbersome prisms, mirrors, or scarce materials, WaveOptics’ optical design harnesses waveguide hologram physics and photonic crystals, which enable lightweight design with good optical performance, the company said.”

Virtual prototyping and AR/VR/MR

Companies designing these types of AR/VR/MR products are under increased pressure to optimize optical system performance, reduce costs, and shorten time to market. To get to a high-confidence design more quickly, companies are using Zemax Virtual Prototyping to enable engineers to simulate how light travels through the complete optomechanical system design—before building a physical prototype. By using OpticStudio and LensMechanix together, optical and mechanical engineers can share complete design data and ensure the quality of the optical performance throughout the entire design cycle.

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