Near Eye Displays (NEDs): Gaps In Pixel Sizes

I get a lot of questions to the effect of “what is the best technology for a near eye display (NED).” There really is no “best” as every technology has its strengths and weaknesses. I plan to right a few articles on this subject as it is way too big for a single article.

Update 2017-06-09I added the Sony Z5 Premium 4K Cell Phone size LCD to the table. Their “pixel” is about 71% the linear dimension of the Samsung S8 or about half the area but still much larger than any of the microdisplay pixels. But one thing I should add is that most cell phone makers are “cheating” on what they call a pixel. The Sony Z5 Premium’s “pixel” really only has 2/3rds of an R, G, and B per pixel it counts. It also has them in a strange 4 pixel zigzag that causes beat frequency artifacts when displaying full resolution 4K content (GSMARENA’s Close Up Pixtures show of the Z5 Premium fails the show the full resolution in both directions). Note similarly Samsung goes with RGBG type patterns that only have 2/3rd the full pixels in the way they count resolution as well. These “tricks in counting are OK when viewed with the naked eye at beyond 300 “pixels” per inch, but become more problematical/dubious when used with optics to support VR. 

Today I want to start with the issue of pixel size as shown in the table at the top (you may want to pop the table out into a separate window as you follow this article). To give some context, I have also included a few major direct view categories of displays as well. I have grouped the technologies into the colored bands in the table. I have given the pixel pitch (distance between pixel centers) as well as the pixel area (the square of the pixel pitch assuming square pixels. Then to give some context for comparison I have compared the pitch and area relative to a 4.27-micron (µm) pixel pitch which is about the smallest being made in large volume. Finally there are columns showing how big the pixel would be in arcminutes when view from 25cm (250mm =~9.84inches) which is the commonly accepted near focus point. Finally there is a column showing how much the pixel would have to be magnified to equal 1-arcminute at 25cm which gives some idea about the optics required.

In the table, I tried to use smallest available pixel in a given technology that was being produced with the exception of “micro-iLED” for which I could not get solid information (thus the “?”). In the case of LCOS, the smallest field sequential color (FSC) pixel I know of is the 4.27µm one by my old company Syndiant used in their new 1080p device. For the OLED, I used the eMagin 9.3 pixel and for the DLP, their 5.4 micron pico pixel. I used the LCOS/smallest pixel as the baseline to give some relative comparisons.

One thing that jumps out in the table are the fairly large gaps in pixel sizes between the microdisplays versus the other technologies. For example you can fit over 100 4.27µm LCOS pixels in the area of a single Samsung S8 OLED pixel or 170 LCOS pixels in the area of a the pixel used in the Oculus CV1. Or to be more extreme you can fit over 5,500 LCOS pixels in one pixel of a 55-inch TV pixel.

Big Gap In Near Eye Displays (NEDs)

The main point of comparison for today are the microdisplay pixels which range from about 4.27µm to about 9.6µm in pitch to the direct view OLED and LCD displays in 40µm to 60µm that have been adapted with optics to be used in VR headsets (NEDs). Roughly we are looking at one order of magnitude in pixel pitch and two orders of magnitude in area. Perhaps the most direct comparison is the microdisplay OLED pixel at 9.3 microns versus the Samsung S8 at 4.8X linear and a 23x area difference.

So why is there this huge gap? It comes down to making the active matrix array circuitry to drive the technology. Microdisplays are made on semiconductor integrated circuits while direct view displays are made on glass and plastic substrates using comparatively huge and not very good transistor. The table below based on one in an article from 2006 by Mingxia Gu while at Kent State University (it is a little out of date, but gives lists the various transistors used in display devices).

The difference in transistors largely explains the gap. With the microdisplays using transistors made in I.C. fabs whereas direct view displays fabricate their larger and less conductive transistors on top of glass or plastic substrates at much lower temperatures.


Within the world of I.C.’s, microdisplays used very old/large transistors often using nearly obsolete semiconductor processes. This is both an effort to keep the cost down and the fact that most display technologies need higher voltages than would be supported by smaller transistor sizes.

There are both display physics and optical diffraction reasons which limit making microdisplay pixels much smaller than 4µm. Additionally, as the pixel size gets below about 6 microns, the optical cost of enlarging the pixel to be seen by the human start to escalate so headset optics makers want 6+ micron pixels which are much more expensive to make. To a first order, microdisplay costs in volume are a function of area of the display so smaller pixels means less expensive devices for the same resolution.

The problem for microdisplays is even using old I.C. fabs, the cost per square millimeter is extremely high compared to TFT on glass/plastic, and yields drop as the size of the device grows so doubling the pixel pitch could result in an 8X or more increase in cost. While is sounds good to be using old/depreciated I.C. fabs, it may also mean they may not have the best/newest/highest yielding equipment or worse yet, they close down the facilities as being obsolete.

The net result is that microdisplays are no where near cost competitive with “re-purposed” cell phone technology for VR if you don’t care about size and weight. They are the only way to do a small lightweight headsets and really the only way to do AR/see through displays (save the huge Meta 2 bug-eye bubble).

I hope to pick up this subject more in some future articles (as each display type could be a long article in and of itself. But for now, I want to get onto the VR systems with larger flat panels.

Direct View Displays Adapted for VR

Direct View VR (ex. Oculus, HTC Vive, and Google Cardboard) have leveraged direct view display technologies developed for cell phones. They then put simple optics in front of the display so that people can focus the image when the display is put so near the eye.

The accepted standard for human “near vision” is 25cm/250mm/9.84-inches. This is about as close as a person can focus and is used for comparing effective magnification. With simple (single/few lens) optics you are not so much making the image bigger per say, but rather moving the display closer to the eye and then using the optics to enable the eye to focus. A typical headset uses a roughly 40mm focal length lens and then put the display at the focal lens or less (e.g. 40mm or less) from the lens.  Putting the display at the focal length of the lens makes the image focus at infinity/far away.

Without getting into all the math (which can be found on the web) the result is that with a 40mm focal length nets an angular magnification (relative to viewing at 25cm) of about 6X. So for example looking back at the table at the top, the Oculus pixel (similar in size to the HTC Vive) which would be about 0.77 arcminutes at 25cm end up appearing to cover about 4.7 arcminutes (which are VERY large/chunky pixels) and about a 95 degree FOV (depends on how close the eye gets to the lens — for a great explanation of this subject and other optical issues with the Oculus CV1 and HTC Vive see this article).

Improving VR Resolution  – Series of Roadblocks

For reference, 1 arcminute per pixel is consider near the limit of human vision and most “good resolution” devices try to be under 2 arcminutes per pixel and preferably under 1.5. So let’s say we want to keep the ~95 FOV but improve the angular resolution by 3x linearly to about 1.5 arcminutes, we have several (bad) options:

  1. Get someone to make a pixel that is 3X smaller linearly or 9X smaller in area. But nobody makes a pixel this size that can support about 3,000 pixels on a side. A microdisplay (I.C. based) will cost a fortune (like over $10,000/eye if it could be made at all) and nobody makes transistors that a cheap and compatible with displays that are small enough. But let’s for a second assume someone figures out a cost effective display, then you have the problem that you need optics that can support this resolution and not the cheap low resolution optics with terrible chroma aberrations, god rays, and astigmatism that you can get away with 4.7 arcminute pixels
  2. Use say the Samsung S8 pixel size (a little smaller) and make two 3K by 3K displays (one for each eye). Each display will be about 134mm or about 5.26 inches on a side and the width of the two displays plus the gap between them will end up at about 12 inches wide. So thing in terms of strapping an large iPad Pro in front of your face only, it now has to be about 100mm (~4 inches) in front of the optics (or about 2.5X as far away at on the current headsets). Hopefully you are starting to get the picture, this thing is going to huge and unwieldy and you will probably need shoulder bracing in addition to head straps. Not to mention that the displays will cost a small fortune along with the optics to go with them.
  3. Some combination of 1 and 2 above.
The Future Does Not Follow a Straight Path

I’m trying to outline above the top level issue (there are many more). Even if/when you solve the display cost/resolution problem, lurking behind that is a massive optical problem to sustain that resolution. These are the problems “straight line futurists” just don’t get; they assume everything will just keep improving at the same rate it has in the past not realizing they are starting to bump up against some very non-linear problems.

When I hear about “Moore’s Law” being applied to displays I just roll my eyes and say that they obviously don’t understand Moore’s Laws and the issued behind it (and why it kept slowing down over time). Back in November 2016 Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash made some “bold predictions” that by 2021 we would have 4K (by 4K) per eye and 140 degree FOV with 2 arcminutes per pixel. He upped my example above by 1.33x more pixels and upped the FOV by almost 1.5X which introduces some serious optical challenges.

At times like this I like to point out the Super Sonic Transport or SST of the 1960’s. The SST seemed inevitable for passenger trave, after all in less than 50 years passenger aircraft when from nothing to the jet age; yet today, over 50 years later, passenger aircraft still fly at about the same speed. Oh by the way, in the 1960’s they were predicting that we would be vacationing on the moon by now and having regular fights to Mars (heck, we made it to the moon in less than 10 years). We certainly could have 4K by 4K displays per eye and 140 degree FOV by 2021 in a head mounted display (it could be done today if you don’t care how big it is), but expect it to be more like the cost of flying supersonic and not a consumer product.

It is easy to play arm chair futurist and assume “things will just happened because I want them to happen. The vastly harder part is to figure out how it can happen. I lived through I.C. development in the late 1970’s through the mid 1990’s so I “get” learning curves and rates of progress.

One More Thing – Micro-iLED

I included in the table at the top Micro Inorganic LEDs, also known as just Micro-LEDs (I’m using iLED to make it clear these are not OLEDs). They are getting a lot of attention lately, particularly after Apple bought LuxVue and Oculus bought InfiniLED. These essentially use very small “normal/conventional” LEDs that are mounted (essentially printed) on a substrate. The fundamental issue is that red requires a very different crystal from blue and green (and even they have different levels of impurities). So they have to make individual LEDs and then combine them (or maybe someday grow the dissimilar crystals on the common substrate).

The allure is that iLEDs have some optics properties that are superior to OLEDs. They have tighter color spectrum, more power efficient, can be driven much brighter, less issues with burn in, and in some cases have less diffuse (better collimated) light.

These Micro-iLEDs are being used in two ways, one to make very large displays by companies such as Sony, Samsung, and NanoLumens or supposedly very small displays (LuxVue and InfiniLED). I understand how the big display approach works, there is lots of room for the LED and these displays are very expensive per pixel.

With the small display approach, they seem to have to double issue of being able to cut very small LEDs and effectively “print” the LEDs on a TFT substrate similar to say OLEDs. What I don’t understand is how these are supposed to be smaller than say OLEDs which would seem to be at least as easy to make on similar TFT or similar transistor substrates. They don’t seem to “fit” in near eye, but maybe there is something I am missing at this point in time.

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