In general, people find the combining of an image with the real world somewhat magical; we see this with heads up displays (HUDs) as well as Augmented/Mixed Reality (AR/MR) headsets. Unlike Starwars R2D2 projection into thin air which was pure movie magic (i.e. fake/impossible), light rays need something to bounce off to redirect them into a person’s eye from the image source. We call this optical device that combines the computer image with the real world a “combiner.”
In effect, a combiner works like a partial mirror. It reflects or redirects the display light to the eye while letting light through from the real world. This is not, repeat not, a hologram which it is being mistakenly called by several companies today. Over 99% people think or call “holograms” today are not, but rather simple optical combining (also known as the Pepper’s Ghost effect).
I’m only going to cover a few of the more popular/newer/more-interesting combiner examples. For a more complete and more technical survey, I would highly recommend a presentation by Kessler Optics. My goal here is not to make anyone an optics expert but rather to gain insight into what companies are doing why.
With headsets, the display device(s) is too near for the human eye to focus and there are other issues such as making a big enough “pupil/eyebox” so the alignment of the display to the eye is not overly critical. With one exception (the Meta 2) there are separate optics that move apparent focus point out (usually they try to put it in a person’s “far” vision as this is more comfortable when mixing with the real word”. In the case of Magic Leap, they appear to be taking the focus issue to a new level with “light fields” that I plan to discuss the next article.
With combiners there is both the effect you want, i.e. redirecting the computer image into the person’s eye, with the potentially undesirable effects the combiner will cause in seeing through it to the real world. A partial list of the issues includes:
- Double/ghost images
- Diffraction effects of color separation and blurring
- Seeing the edge of the combiner
In addition to the optical issues, the combiner adds weight, cost, and size. Then there are aesthetic issues, particularly how they make the user’s eye look/or if they affect how others see the user’s eyes; humans are very sensitive to how other people’s eye look (see the EPSON BT-300 below as an example).
FOV and Combiner Size
There is a lot of desire to support a wide Field Of View (FOV) and for combiners a wide FOV means the combiner has to be big. The wider the FOV and the farther the combiner is from the eye the bigger the combiner has to get (there is not way around this fact, it is a matter of physics). One way companies “cheat” is to not support a person wearing their glasses at all (like Google Glass did).
The simple (not taking everything into effect) equation (in excel) to computer the minimum width of a combiner is =2*TAN(RADIANS(A1/2))*B1 where A1 is the FOV in degrees and and B1 is the distance to farthest part combiner. Glasses are typically about 0.6 to 0.8 inches from the eye and the size of the glasses and the frames you want about 1.2 inches or more of eye relief. For a 40 degree wide FOV at 1.2 inches this translates to 0.9″, at 60 degrees 1.4″ and for 100 degrees it is 2.9″ which starts becoming impractical (typical lenses on glasses are about 2″ wide).
For, very wide FOV displays (over 100 degree), the combiner has to be so near your eye that supporting glasses becomes impossible. The formula above will let your try your own assumptions.
Popular/Recent Combiner Types (Part 1)
Below, I am going to go through the most common beam combiner options. I’m going to start with the simpler/older combiner technologies and work my way to the “waveguide” beam splitters of some of the newest designs in Part 2. I’m going to try and hit on the main types, but there are many big and small variations within a type
These are often used with a polarizing beam splitter polarized when using LCOS microdisplays, but they can also be simple mirrors. They generally are small due to weight and cost issues such as with the Google Glass at left. Due to their small size, the user will see the blurry edges of the beam splitter in their field of view which is considered highly undesirable. Also as seen in the Epson BT-300 picture (at right), they can make a person’s eyes look strange. As seen with both the Google Glass and Epson, they have been used with the projector engine(s) on the sides.
Google glass has only about a 13 degree FOV (and did not support using a person’s glasses) and about 1.21 arc-minutes/pixel angular resolution with is on the small end compared to most other headset displays. The BT-300 about 23 degree (and has enough eye relief to supports most glasses) horizontally and has dual 1280×720 pixels per eye giving it a 1.1 arc-minutes/pixel angular resolution. Clearly these are on the low end of what people are expecting in terms of FOV and the solid beam quickly becomes too large, heavy, and expensive at the FOV grows. Interesting they are both are on the small end of their apparent pixel size.
While most of the AR/MR companies today are trying to make flatter combiners to support a wide FOV with small microdisplays for each eye, Meta has gone in the opposite direction with dual very large semi-spherical combiners with a single OLED flat panel to support an “almost 90 degree FOV”. Note in the picture of the Meta 2 device that there are essentially two hemispheres integrated together with a single large OLED flat panel above.
Meta 2 uses a 2560 by 1440 pixel display that is split between two eyes. Allowing for some overlap there will be about 1200 pixel per eye to cover 90 degrees FOV resulting in a rather chunkylarge (similar to Oculus Rift) 4.5 arc-minutes/pixel which I find somewhat poor (a high resolution display would be closer to 1 a-m/pixel).
The effect of the dual spherical combiners is to act as a magnifying mirror that also move the focus point out in space so the use can focus. The amount of magnification and the apparent focus point is a function of A) the distance from the display to the combiner, B) the distance from the eye to the combiner, and C) the curvature. I’m pretty familiar with this optical arrangement since the optical design it did at Navdy had similarly curved combiner, but because the distance from the display to the combiner and the eye to the combiner were so much more, the curvature was less (larger radius).
I wonder if their very low angular resolution was as a result of their design choice of the the large spherical combiner and the OLED display’s available that they could use. To get the “focus” correct they would need a smaller (more curved) radius for the combiner which also increases the magnification and thus the big chunky pixels. In theory they could swap out the display for something with higher resolution but it would take over doubling the horizontal resolution to have a decent angular resolution.
I would also be curious how well this large of a plastic combiner will keep its shape over time. It is a coated mirror and thus any minor perturbations are double. Additionally and strain in the plastic (and there is always stress/strain in plasic) will cause polarization effect issues, say when viewing and LCD monitor through it. It is interesting because it is so different, although the basic idea has been around for a number of years such as by a company called Link (see picture on the right).
Overall, Meta is bucking the trend toward smaller and lighter, and I find their angular resolution disappointing The image quality based on some on-line see-through videos (see for example this video) is reasonably good but you really can’t tell angular resolution from the video clips I have seen. I do give them big props for showing REAL/TRUE video’s through they optics.
It should be noted that their system at $949 for a development kit is about 1/3 that of Hololens and the ODG R-7 with only 720p per eye but higher than the BT-300 at $750. So at least on a relative basis, they look to be much more cost effective, if quite a bit larger.
With a wide FOV tilted combiner, the microdisplay and optics are locate above in a “brow” with the plate tilted (about 45 degrees) as shown at left on an Osterhout Design Group (ODG) model R-7 with 1280 by 720 pixel microdisplays per eye. The R-7 has about a 37 degree FOV and a comparatively OK 1.7 arc-minutes/pixel angular resolution.
The biggest drawback of the plate combiner is that it takes up a lot of volume/distance in front of the eye since the plate is tilted at about 45 degrees from front to back. As the FOV gets bigger the volume/distance required also increase.
ODG is now talking about a next model called “Horizon” (early picture at left). Note in the picture at left how the Combiner (see red dots) has become much larger. They claim to have >50 degree FOV and with a 1920 x 1080 display per eyethis works out to an angular resolution of about 1.6 arc-minutes/pixel which is comparitively good.
Their combiner is bigger than absolutely necessary for the ~50 degree FOV. Likely this is to get the edges of the combiner farther into a person’s peripheral vision to make them less noticeable.
The combiner is still tilted but it looks like it may have some curvature to it which will tend to act as a last stage of magnification and move the focus point out a bit. The combiner in this picture is also darker than the one in the older R-7 combiner and may have additional coatings on it.
ODG has many years of experience and has done many different designs (for example, see this presentation on Linked-In). They certainly know about the various forms of flat optical waveguides such as Microsoft’s Hololens is using that I am going to be talking about next time. In fact, that Microsoft’s licensed Patent from ODG for about $150M US — see).
Today, flat or slightly curved thin combiners like ODG is using probably the best all around technology today in terms of size, weight, cost, and perhaps most importantly image quality. Plate combiners don’t require the optical “gymnastics” and the level of technology and precision that the flat waveguides require.
Next time — High Tech Flat Waveguides
Flat waveguides using diffraction (DOE) and/or holographic optical elements (HOE) are what many think will be the future of combiners. They certainly are the most technically sophisticated. They promise to make the optics thinner and lighter but the question is whether they have the optical quality and yield/cost to compete yet with simpler methods like what ODG is using on the R-7 and Horizon.
Microsoft and Magic Leap each are spending literally over $1B US each and both are going with some form of flat, thin waveguides. This is a subject to itself that I plan to cover next time.