Archive for January 31, 2017

CES 2017 AR, What Problem Are They Trying To Solve?

Introduction

First off, this post is a few weeks late. I got sick on returning from CES and then got busy with some other pressing activities.

At left is a picture that caught me next to the Lumus Maximus demo at CES from Imagineality’s “CES 2017: Top 6 AR Tech Innovations“. Unfortunately they missed that in the Lumus booth at about the same time was a person from Magic Leap and Microsoft’s Hololens (it turned out we all knew each other from prior associations).

Among Imagineality’s top 6 “AR Innovations” were ODG’s R-8/R-9 Glasses (#1) and Lumus’s Maximus 55 degree FOV waveguide (#3). From what I heard at CES and saw in the writeups, ODG and Lumus did garner a lot of attention. But by necessity, theses type of lists are pretty shallow in their evaluations and I try to do on this blog is go a bit deeper into the technology and how it applies to the market.

Among the near eye display companies I looked at during CES include Lumus, ODG, Vuzix, Real Wear, Kopin, Wave Optics, Syndiant, Cremotech, QD Laser, Blaze (division of eMagin) plus several companies I met with privately. As interesting to me as their technologies was there different takes on the market.

For this article, I am mostly going to focus on the Industrial / Enterprise market. This is were most of the AR products are shipping today. In future articles, I plan to go into other markets and more of a deep dive on the the technology.

What Is the Problem They Are Trying to Solve?

I have had an number of people asked me what was the best or most interesting AR thing I saw at CES 2017, and I realized that this was at best an incomplete question. You first need to ask, “What problem are they trying to solve?” Which leads to “how well does it solve that problem?” and “how big is that market?

One big takeaway I had at CES having talked to a number of different company’s is that the various headset designs were, intentionally or not, often aimed at very different applications and use cases. Its pretty hard to compare a headset that almost totally blocks a user’s forward view but with a high resolution display to one that is a lightweight information device that is highly see-through but with a low resolution image.

Key Characteristics

AR means a lot of different things to different people. In talking to a number of companies, you found they were worried about different issues. Broadly you can separate into two classes:

  1. Mixed Reality – ex. Hololens
  2. Informational / “Data Snacking”- ex. Google Glass

For most of the companies were focused on industrial / enterprise / business uses at least for the near future and in this market the issues include:

  1. Cost
  2. Resolution/Contrast/Image Quality
  3. Weight/Comfort
  4. See-through and/or look over
  5. Peripheral vision blocking
  6. Field of view (small)
  7. Battery life per charge

For all the talk about mixed reality (ala Hololens and Magic Leap), most of the companies selling product today are focused on helping people “do a job.” This is where they see the biggest market for AR today. It will be “boring” to the people wanting the “world of the future” mixed reality being promised by Hololens and Magic Leap.

You have to step back and look at the market these companies are trying to serve. There are people working on a factory floor or maybe driving a truck where it would be dangerous to obscure a person’s vision of the real world. They want 85% or more transparency, very lightweight and highly comfortable so it can be worn for 8 hours straight, and almost no blocking of peripheral vision. If they want to fan out to a large market, they have to be cost effective which generally means they have to cost less than $1,000.

To meet the market requirements, they sacrifice field of view and image quality. In fact, they often want a narrow FOV so it does not interfere with the user’s normal vision. They are not trying to watch movies or play video games, they are trying to give necessary information for person doing a job than then get out of the way.

Looking In Different Places For the Information

I am often a hard audience. I’m not interested in the marketing spiel, I’m looking for what is the target market/application and what are the facts and figure and how is it being done. I wanting to measure things when the demos in the boths are all about trying to dazzle the audience.

As a case in point, let’s take ODG’s R-9 headset, most people were impressed with the image quality from ODG’s optics with a 1080p OLED display, which was reasonably good (they still had some serious image problems caused by their optics that I will get into in future articles).

But what struck me was how dark the see-through/real world was when viewed in the demos. From what I could calculate, they are blocking about 95% of the real world light in the demos. They also are too heavy and block too much of a person’s vision compared to other products; in short they are at best going after a totally different market.

Industrial Market

Vuzix is representative of the companies focused on industrial / enterprise applications. They are using with waveguides with about 87% transparency (although they often tint it or uses photochromic light sensitive tinting). Also the locate the image toward the outside of the use’s view so that even when an image it displayed (note in the image below-right that the exit port of the waveguide is on the outside and not in the center as it would be on say a Hololens).

The images at right were captured from a Robert Scoble interview with Paul Travers, CEO of Vuzix. BTW, the first ten minutes of the video are relatively interesting on how Vuzix waveguides work but after that there is a bunch of what I consider silly future talk and flights of fancy that I would take issue with. This video shows the “raw waveguides” and how they work.

Another approach to this category is Realwear. They have a “look-over” display that is not see through but their whole design is make to not block the rest of the users forward vision. The display is on a hinge so it can be totally swung out of the way when not in use.

Conclusion

What drew the attention of most of the media coverage of AR at CES was how “sexy” the technology was and this usually meant FOV, resolution, and image quality. But the companies that were actually selling products were more focused on their user’s needs which often don’t line up with what gets the most press and awards.

 

ODG R-8 and R-9 Optic with a OLED Microdisplays (Likely Sony’s)

ODG Announces R-8 and R-9 OLED Microdisplay Headsets at CES

It was not exactly a secret, but Osterhout Design Group (ODG) formally announce their new R-8 headset with dual 720p displays (one per eye) and R-9 headset with dual 1080p displays.  According to their news release, “R-9 will be priced around $1,799 with initial shipping targeted 2Q17, while R-8 will be less than $1,000 with developer units shipping 2H17.

Both devices use use OLED microdisplays but with different resolutions (the R-9 has twice the pixels). The R-8 has a 40 degree field of view (FOV) which is similar to Microsoft’s Hololens and the R-9 has about a 50 degree FOV.

The R-8 appears to be marketed more toward “consumer” uses with is lower price point and lack of an expansion port, while ODG is targeting the R-9 to more industrial uses with modular expansion. Among the expansion that ODG has discussed are various cameras and better real world tracking modules.

ODG R-7 Beam Splitter Kicks Image Toward Eye

With the announcement comes much better pictures of the headsets and I immediately noticed that their optics were significantly different than I previously thought. Most importantly, I noticed in the an ODG R-8 picture that the beam splitter is angled to kicks the light away from the eye whereas the prior ODG R-7 had a simple beam splitter that kicks the image toward the eye (see below).

ODG R-8 and R-8 Beam Splitter Kicks Image Away From Eye and Into A Curved Mirror

The ODG R-8 (and R-9 but it is harder to see on the available R-9 pictures) does not have a simple beam splitter but rather a beam splitter and curve mirror combination. The side view below (with my overlays of the outline of the optics including some that are not visible) that the beam splitter kicks the light away from the eye and toward partial curved mirror that acts as a “combiner.” This curve mirror will magnify and move the virtual focus point and then reflects the light back through the beam splitter to the eye.

On the left I have taken Figure 169 from ODG’s US Patent 9,494,800. Light from the “emissive display” (ala OLED) passes through two lenses before being reflected into the partial mirror. The combination of the lenses and the mirror act to adjust the size and virtual focus point of the displayed image. In the picture of the ODG R-8 above I have taken the optics from Figure 169 and overlaid them (in red).

According to the patent specification, this configuration “form(s) at wide field of view” while “The optics are folded to make the optics assembly more compact.”

At left I have cropped the image and removed the overlay so you can see the details of the beam splitter and curved mirror joint.  You hopefully can see the seam where the beam splitter appears to be glued to the curved mirror suggesting the interior between the curved mirror and beam splitter is hollow. Additionally there is a protective cover/light shade over the outside of the curved mirror with a small gap between them.

The combined splitter/mirror is hollow to save weight and cost. It is glued together to keep dust out.

ODG R-6 Used A Similar Splitter/Mirror

I could not find a picture of the R-8 or R-9 from the inside, but I did find a picture on the “hey Holo” blog that shows the inside of the R-6 that appears to use the same optical configuration as the R-8/R-9. The R-6 introduced in 2014 had dual 720p displays (one per eye) and was priced at $4,946 or about 5X the price of the R-8 with the same resolution and similar optical design.  Quite a price drop in just 2 years.

ODG R-6, R-8, and R-9 Likely Use Sony OLED Microdisplays

Interestingly, I could not find anywhere were ODG says what display technology they use in the 2014 R-6, but the most likely device is the Sony ECX332A 720p OLED microdisplay that Sony introduced in 2011. Following this trend it is likely that the ODG R-9 uses the newer Sony ECX335 1080p OLED microdisplay and the R-9 uses the ECE332 or a follow-on version. I don’t know any other company that has both a 720p and 1080p OLED microdisplays and the timing of the Sony and ODG products seems to fit. It is also very convenient for ODG that both panels are the same size and could use the same or very similar optics.

Sony had a 9.6 micron pixel on a 1024 by 768 OLED microdisplay back in 2011 so for Sony the pixel pitch has gone from 9.6 in 2011 to 8.2 microns on the 1080p device. This is among the smallest OLED microdisplay pixel pitches I have seen but still is more than 2x linearly and 4x in area bigger than the smallest LCOS (several companies have LCOS pixels pitches in the 4 micron or less range).

It appears that ODG used an OLED microdisplay for the R-6 then switched (likely for cost reasons) to LCOS and a simple beam splitter for the R7 and then back to OLEDs and the splitter/mirror optics for the R-8 and R-9.

Splitter/Combiner Is an Old Optic Trick

This “trick” of mixing lenses with a spherical combiner partial mirror is an old idea/trick. It often turns out that mixing refractive (lenses) with mirror optics can lead to a more compact and less expensive design.

I have seen a beam splitter/mirror used many times. The ODG design is a little different in that the beam splitter is sealed/mated to the curved mirror which with the pictures available earlier make it hard to see. Likely as not this has been done before too.

This configuration of beam splitter and curve mirror even showed up in Magic Leap applications such as Fig. 9 from 2015/0346495 shown at right. I think this is the optical configuration that Magic Leap used with some of their prototypes including the one seen by “The Information.

Conclusion/Trends – Turning the Crank

The ODG optical design while it may seem a bit more complex than a simple beam splitter, is actually probably simpler/easier to make than doing everything with lenses before the beam splitter. Likely they went to this technique to support a wider FOV.

Based on my experience, I would expect that ODG optical design will be cleaner/better than the waveguide designs of Microsoft’s Hololens. The use of OLED microdisplays should give ODG superior contrast which will further improve the perceived sharpness of the image. While not as apparent to the casual observer, but as I have discussed previously, OLEDs won’t work with diffractive/holographic waveguides such as Hololens and Magic Leap are using.

What is also interesting that in terms of resolution and basic optics, the R-8 with 720p is about 1/5th the price of the military/industrial grade 720p R-6 of about 2 years ago. While the R-9 in addition to having a 1080p display, has some modular expansion capability, one would expect there will be follow-on product with 1080p with a larger FOV and more sensors in a price range of the R-8 in the not too distant future and perhaps with integration of the features from one or more of the R-9’s add-on modules; this as we say in the electronics industry, “is just a matter of turning the crank.”