Archive for LCOS

Disney-Lenovo AR Headset – (Part 1 Optics)

Disney Announced Joint AR Development At D23

Disney at their D23 Fan Convention in Anaheim on July 15th, 2017 announced an Augmented Reality (AR) Headset jointly developed with Lenovo. Below is a crop and brightness enhanced still frame capture from Disney’s “Teaser” video.

Disney/Lenovo also released a video from a interview a the D23 convention which gave further details. As the interview showed (see right), the device is based on using a person’s cell phone as the display (similar to Google cardboard and Samsung’s Gear for VR).

Birdbath Optics

Based on analyzing the two videos plus some knowledge of optical systems, it is possible to figure out what they are doing in terms of the optical system. Below is a diagram of what I see them as doing  in terms of optics (you may want to open this in a separate widow to view this figure in the discussion below).

All the visual evidence indicates that Disney/Lenovo  using a classical “birdbath” optical design (discussed in an article on March 03, 2017). The name “birdbath” comes from the used of a spherical semi-mirror with a beam splitter directing light into the mirror. Birdbath optics are used because they are relatively inexpensive, lightweight, support a wide field of view (FOV), and are “on axis” for minimal distortion and focusing issues.

The key element of the birdbath is the curve mirror which is (usually) the only “power” (focus changing) element. The beauty of mirror optics is that they have essentially zero chromatic aberrations whereas is is difficult/expensive to reduce chromatic aberrations with lens optics.

The big drawbacks of birdbath optics include that they block a lot of light both from the display device and the real world and double images from unwanted reflections of “waste” light. Both these negative effects can be seen in the videos.

There would be no practical way (that I know of) to support a see-though display with a cell phone sized display using refractory (lens) optics such as used with Google Cardboard or the Oculus Rift. The only practical ways I know for supporting AR/see-through display using a cell phone size display all use curved combiner/mirrors..

Major Components

Beam Splitter – The design uses a roughly 50/50 semi-mirror beam splitter which has a coating (typically aluminum alloy although it is often called “silver”) that lets about 50 percent of the light through while acting like a mirror for 50% of the light. Polarizing beam splitters would be problematic with using most phones and are much more expensive. You should note that the beam splitter is arranged to kick the image from the phone toward the curved combiner and away from the person’s eyes; thus light from the display is reflected and then has a transmissive pass.

Combiner – The combiner, a spherical semi-mirror is the key to the optics and multiple things. The combiner appears to also be about 50-50 transmissive-mirror. The curved mirror’s first job is to all the user for focus on the phones display which otherwise would be too close to a person’s eyes to support comfortable focusing. The other job of the combiner is to combine the light/image from the “real world” with the display light; it does this with the semi-mirror allowing light from the image to reflect and light from the real world be be directed toward the eye. The curve mirror only has a signification optical power (focus) effect on the reflected display light and very little distortion of the real world.

Clear Protective Shield

As best I can tell from the two videos, the shield is pretty much clear and serves no function other than to protect the rest of the optics.

Light Baffles Between Display Images

One thing seen in the picture at top are some back stepped light baffles to keep light cross-talk down between the eye.

Light Loss (Follow the Red Path)

A huge downside of the birdbath design is the light loss as illustrated in the diagram by the red arrow path where the thickness of the arrows are roughly to scale with the relative amount of light. To keep things simple, I have assumed no other losses (there are typically 2% to 4% per surface).

Starting with 100% of the light leaving the phone display, about 50% of goes through the beam splitter and is lost while the other 50% is reflected to the combiner. The combiner is also about 50% mirrored (a rough assumption), and thus 25% (0.5 X 0.5) of the display’s light has its focus changed and reflected back toward the beam splitter. About 25% of the light also goes through the combiner and causes the image you can see in the picture on the left. The beam splitter in turn allows 50% of the 25% or only about 12.5% of the light to pass toward the eye. Allowing for some practical losses, less than 10% of the light from the phone makes it to the eye.

Double Images and Contrast Loss (Follow the Green Dash Path)

Another major problem with the birdbath optics is that the lost light will bounce around and cause double images and losses in contrast. If you follow the green path, like the red path about 50% of the light will be reflected and 50% will pass through the beamsplitter (not shown on the green path). Unfortunately, a small percentage of the light that is supposed to pass through will be reflected by the glass/plastic to air interface as it tries to exit the beamsplitter as indicated by the green and red dashed lines (part of the red dashed line is obscured). This dashed path will end up causing a faint/ghost image that is offset by thickness of the beamsplitter tilted at 45 degrees. Depending on coatings, this ghost image could be from 1% to 5% of the brightness of the original image.

The image on the left is a crop from a still frame from the video Disney showed at the D23 conference with red arrows I added pointing to double/ghost images (click here for the uncropped image). The demo Disney gave was on a light background and these double images would be even more noticeable on a dark background. These same type of vertically offset double image could be seen in the Osterhaut Design Group (ODG) R8 and R9 headsets that also use a birdbath optical path (see figure on the right).

A general problem with the birdbath design is that there is so much light that is “rattling around” in an optical wedge formed by the display surface (in this case the phone), beamsplitter, and combiner mirror. Noted in the diagram that about 12.5% of the light returning from the combiner mirror reflected off the beam splitter is heading back toward the phone. This light is eventually going to hit the front glass of the phone and while much of it will be absorbed by the phone, some of it is going to reflect back, hit the beam splitter and eventually make it to the eye.

About 80% of the Real World Light Is Blocked

In several frames in the D23 interview video it was possible to see through the optics and make measurements as to the relative brightness looking through and around the optics. This measurement is only rough and and it helped to take it in several different images. The result was that about a 4.5 to 5X difference in brightness looking through the optics.

Looking back at the blue/center line in the optical diagram, about 50% of the light is blocked by the partial mirror combiner and then 50% of that light is block by the beam splitter for a net of 25%. With other practical losses including the shield, this comes close to the roughly 80% (4/5ths) of the light being block.

Is A Cell Phone Bright Enough?

For Movies in a dark room ANSI/SMPTE 196M spec for movies recommends about about 55 nits in a dark room. A cell phone typically has from 500 to 800 peak nits (see Displaymate’s Shootouts for objective measurements), but after about a 90% optical loss the image  would be down to between about 50 and 80 nits, which is possible just enough if the background/room is dark. could be acceptably bright in a moderately dark room.  But if the room light are on, this will be at best marginal even after allowing for the headset blocking about 75 to 80% of the room light between the combiner and the beam splitter.

With AR you are not just looking at a blank wall. To make something look “solid” non/transparent the display image needs to “dominate” by being at least 2X brighter than anything behind it. It becomes even more questionable that there is enough brightness unless there is not a lot of ambient light (or everything in the background is dark colored or the room lights are very dim).

Note, an LCOS or DLP based see-through AR systems can start with about 10 to 30 times or more the brightness (nits) of a cell phone. They do this so they can work in a variety of light conditions after all the other light losses in a system.

Alternative Optical Solution – Meta-2 “Type”

Using a large display like a cell phone rather than microdisplay severely limits the optical choices with a see-through display. Refractive (lens) optics, for example, would be huge and expensive or Fresnel optics with their optical issues.

Meta-2 “Bug-Eye” Combiners

The most obvious alternative to the birdbad would be to go with dual large combiners such as the Meta-2 approach (see left). When I first saw the Disney-Lenovo design, I even thought it might be using the Meta-2 approach (disproven on closer inspection). With Meta-2, the beam splitter is eliminated and two much larger semi-circular combiners (givening a “bug-eye” look) have a direct path to the display.  Still the bug-eyed combiner is not that much larger than the shield on the Disney-Lenovo system. Immediately, you should notice how the user’s eyes are visible which shows how much more light is getting through..

Because there is no beamsplitter, the Meta-2 design is much more optically efficient. Rough measurements from pictures suggest the Meta-2’s combiners pass 60% and thus reflects about 40%. This means with the same display, it would make the display appear 3 to 4 times brighter while allowing about 2.5X of the real world light through as that of the Disney-Lenovo birdbath design.

I have not tested a Meta-2 nor have read any serious technical evaluation (just the usual “ooh-wow” articles), and I have some concerns with the Meta design. The Meta-2 is “off-axis” in that the display is not perfectly perpendicular to the the combiner. One of the virtues of the birdbath is that is it results in a straightforward on-axis design. With the off-axis design, I wonder how well the focus distance is controlled across the FOV.

Also, the Meta-2 combiners are so far from the eye, that a persons two eyes would have optical cross-talk (there is nothing to keep the one eye from seeing what the other eye is seeing such as the baffels in the Disney-Lenovo design). I don’t know how this would affect things in stereo use, but I would be concerned.

In terms of simple image quality, I would think it would favor the single bug-eye style combiner. There are are no secondary reflections caused by the beamsplitter and both the display and the real world would be significantly brighter. In terms of cost, I see pro’s and con’s relative to each design and overall not a huge difference assuming both designs started with a cell phone displays. In terms of weight, I don’t see much of a difference either.

Conclusions

To begin with, I would not expect even good image quality out of a phone-as-a-display AR headset. Even totally purpose built AR display have their problems. Making a device “see-through” generally makes everything more difficult/expensive.

The optical design has to be compromised right from the start to support both LCD and OLED phones that could have different sizes. Making matters worse is the birdbath design with its huge light losses. Add to this the inherent reflections in the birdbath design and I don’t have high hopes for the image quality.

It seems to me a very heavy “lift” even for the Disney and Star Wars brands. We don’t have any details as to the image tracking and room tracking but I would expect like the optics, it will be done on the cheap. I have no inside knowledge, but it almost looks to me that the solution was designed around supporting the Jedi Light Saber shown in the teaser video (right). They need the see-through aspect so the user can see the light saber. But making the headset see-through is a long way to go to support the saber.

BTW, I’m a big Disney fan from way back (have been to the Disney parks around the world multiple times, attended D23 conventions, eaten at Club 33, was a member of the “Advisory Council” in 1999-2000, own over 100 books on Disney, and the one of the largest 1960’s era Disneyland Schuco monorail collections in the world ). I have an understanding and appreciation of Disney fandom, so this is not a knock on Disney in general.

VAC By Oculus and Microsoft . . . Everywhere and Nowhere

Technically Interesting New Papers At Siggraph 2017

Both Oculus (Facebook) and Microsoft’s are presenting interesting technical research  papers at Siggraph 2017 (July 30th to August 3rd) that deal with Vergence/Accommodation (VAC).  Both have web pages (Oculus link and Microsoft link) with links to relatively easy to follow videos and the papers. But readers should take to heed the words on the Microsoft Page (which I think is applicable to both): “Note that this Microsoft Research publication is not necessarily indicative of any Microsoft product roadmap, but relates to basic research around holographic displays.” I can’t hope to try and get into all the technical details here, but they both have a lot well explained information with figures and for those that are interested, you can still learn a lot from them even if you have to skip over some of the heavy duty math. One other interesting thing is that both Oculus and Microsoft used phase controlled LCOS microdisplays at the heart of their technologies.

Briefly, VAC is the problem with stereoscopic 3-D where the apparent focus of objects does not agree with were they seem to appear with binocular vision. This problem can cause visual discomfort and headaches. This year I have been talking a lot about VAC thanks first to Magic Leap (ML article) and more recently Avegant (Avegant VAC article ) making big deals about and both raising a lot of money (Magic Leap over $1B) as a result. But least you think Magic Leap and Avegant are the only ones, there are dozens of research groups over the last decade working on VAC. Included in that number is Nvidia with a light field approach that they presented a paper in 2013 also at Siggraph (The 2013 Nvidia Paper with links embedded at the bottom of the Abstract to more information and a video)

The Oculus paper has a wealth of background/education information about VAC and figures that help explain the concepts. In many ways it is a great tutorial. They also have a very lengthy set of references that among other things confirm how many different groups have worked on VAC and this is only a partial list. I also recommend papers and videos on VAC by Gordon Wetzstein of Stanford. There is so much activity that I put “Everywhere” in the title.

I particularly liked Oculus’s Fig. 2 which is copied at the top of this article (they have several other very good figures as well as their video). They show the major classes of VAC, from a) do nothing, b) change focus (perhaps based on eye tracking), to c) Multifocal which is what I think Magic Leap and Avegant are doing, to d)&e) Oculus’s “focal surfaces(s), to f) light fields (ex. Nvidia’s 2013 paper). But light fields are in a way a short cut compared to real/true holograms which is what Microsoft’s 2017 paper is addressing (not shown in the table above but discussed in Oculus’s paper and video).

I put the “real” in front of the work “hologram” because confusingly Microsoft, for what appears to be marketing purposes, has chosen to call stereoscopic merged reality objects “holograms” which scientifically they are not. Thanks to Microsoft’s marketing clout and others choosing “if you can’t beat them joint them” in using the term, we now have the problem of what to call real/true holograms as discussed in Microsoft’s 2017 Siggraph paper.

High Level Conceptually:
  • Light Fields are a way to realize many of the effects of holograms such such as VAC and being able to see around objects. But light fields have piece-wise discontinuities. They can only reduce the discontinuities by massively trading off resolution; thus they need massive amounts of processing and native display resolution for a given visual resolution. Most of the processing and display resolution never makes it do the eye as based on where the eye is looking and focused, all but a small part of the generated image information is never seen. The redundancy with light fields tends to grow with a square law (X and Y).
  • Focus planes in effect try and cut down the Light Field square law redundancy problem by having the image redundancy grow linearly. They need multiple planes and then rely on your eye to do the blending between planes. Still the individual planes on “flat” and with a large continuous surface there would be discontinuities at the point where it would have to change planes (imagine a road going off in the distance).
  • Oculus Surfaces are in essence and improvement on focus planes where the surfaces try to conform more to the depth in the image and reduce the discontinuities. One could then argue whether it would be better to have more simple focus planes or fewer Focus Surfaces.
  • Holograms have at least an “n-cube” problem as they conceptually capture/display the image in X, Y, and Z. As the resolution increases the complexity grows extremely fast. Light fields have sometimes been described as “Quantized Holograms” at they put a finite limit on the computational and image content growth.
Oculus’s Focus Surface Approach

In a nutshell, Oculus is using an eMagin OLED to generate the image and a Jasper Display Phase Shift LCOS device to generate a “focus surface”. The focus changes focus continuously-gradually, and not on a per-pixel basis, which is why they call is a “surface”.  The figure on the right (taken from their video) shows the basic concept of a “focus surface” and how the surface roughly tracks the image depth. The paper (and video) go on to  discuss how having more than one surface and how the distance approximation “error” would compare with multi-focus planes (such as Magic Leap and Avegant).

While the hardware diagram above would suggest something that would fit in a headset, it is still at the optical breadboard stage. Even using microdisplays, it is a lot to put on a person’s head. Not to mention the cost of having in effect two displays (the LCOS one controlling the focus surface) plus all the additional optics. Below is a picture of the optical breadboard.

Microsoft (True This Time) Holograms

While Oculus’s hardware looks like something that could fit in a headset someday, Microsoft is much more of a research concept, although they did show a compact AR Prototype “glasses” (shown at right) that had a small subset of the capability of the larger optical breadboard.

Microsoft’s optical breadboard setup could support either Wide FOV or Multi-Focal (VAC) but not both at the same time (see picture below). Like other real time hologram approaches (and used by Oculus in their focal surface approach), Microsoft uses a Phase LCOS device.The Microsoft paper goes into some of the interesting things that can be done with holograms including correcting for aberrations in the optics and/or a person’s vision.

In many ways Holograms ultimate end game in display technology where comparatively everything else in with VAC is a hack/shortcut/simplification to avoid the massive computations and hardware complexities/difficulties of implementing real time holograms.

Resolution/Image Quality – Not So Much

The image quality in the Oculus Surface paper is by their admission very low both in terms of resolution and contrast. As they freely admit, it is a research prototype and not meant to be a product.

Some of these limitations are the nature of making a one-off experiment as the article points out but some of the issues may be more fundamental physics. One thing that concerns me (and pointed out in the article) in the Oculus design is that they have to pass all three colors through the same LC material and the LC’s behavior varies with wavelength. These problems would become more significant as resolution increases. I will give the Oculus paper props for both for is level of information and candor about many of the issues; it really is a very well done paper if you are interested in this subject.

It is harder to get at the resolution and image quality aspects of the the Microsoft Hologram paper as they show little images from different configurations. They can sort of move the problems around with Holograms; they can tune them and even the physical configuration for image quality, pupil size, or depth accommodation, but not all at the same time. Digital/real-time holograms can do some rather amazing things as as the Microsoft paper demonstrates but but they are still inordinately expensive both to compute and display and the image quality is inferior to more conventional methods. Solving for image quality (resolution/contrast), pupil/eyebox size, and VAC/image depth simultaneously makes the problems/cost tend to take off exponentially.

Don’t Expect to See These In Stores for Decades, If Ever

One has to realize that these are research projects going for some kind of bragging rights in showing the technical prowess, which both Oculus and Microsoft do impressively in their own ways. Note the Nvidia Light Field paper was presented at Siggraph 2013 years ago and supporting decent resolution with Light Fields is still a very far off dream. If their companies thought these concepts were even remotely practical and only a few years away, the companies would have kept them deep dark secrets. These are likely seen by their companies as so out in the future that there is no threat to letting their competition see what they are doing.

The Oculus Surface approach is conceptually better on a “per plane” than the “focus planes” VAC approaches, but then you have to ask are more simple planes better overall and/or less expensive? At a practical level I think the Oculus Surface would be more expensive and I would expect the image quality to be considerably worse. At best, the Oculus Surface would be a stop-gap improvement.

Real time high resolution holograms that will compete on image quality would seem to be even further out in time. This is why there are so many companies/researchers looking at short cuts to VAC with things like focus planes.

VAC in Context – Nowhere

VAC has been a known issue for a long time with companies and researchers working in head mounted displays. Magic Leap’s $1+B funding and their talk about VAC made it a cause célèbre in AR/VR and appears to have caused a number of projects to come out from behind closed doors (for V.C. funding or just bragging rights).

Yes, VAC is a real issue/problem particularly/only when 3-D stereoscopic objects appear to be closer than about 2 meters (6 feet) away. It causes not only perceptual problems, but can cause headaches and make people sick. Thus you have companies and researchers looking for solutions.

The problem IMO is that VAC is would be say about 20th (to pick a number) on my list of serious problems facing AR/VR. Much higher on the list are based image quality, ergonomic (weight distribution), power, and computing problems. Every VAC solution comes at some expense in terms of image quality (resolution/contrast/chromatic-abberations/etc).

Fundamentally, if you eye can pick what it focuses on, then there has to be a lot of redundant information presented to the eye that it will discard (not notice) as it focuses on what it does see. This translates into image information that must be displayed (but not seen), processing computations that are thrown away, and electrical power being consumed for image content that is not used.

I’m Conflicted

So I am conflicted. As a technologist, I find the work in VAC and beyond (Holograms address much more than VAC) fascinating. Both the Oculus and Microsoft articles are interesting and can be largely understood by someone without a PhD in the subject.

But in the end I am much more interested in technology that can reach a sizable market and on that score I don’t understand all the fuss about VAC.  I guess we will have to wait and see if Magic Leap changes the world or is another Segway or worse Theranos; you might be able to tell which way I am leaning based on what I understand.

Today, the image quality of headsets is pretty poor when compared to say direct view TVs and Monitors, the angular resolution (particularly of VR) is poor, the ergonomics are for the most part abysmal, and if you are going to wireless, the batteries are both too heavy and have too short a life. Anything that is done to address VAC makes these more basic problems not just a little worse, but much worse.

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.

Microdisplays

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 Doc-Ok.org 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.

Avegant “Light Field” Display – Magic Leap at 1/100th the Investment?

Surprised at CES 2017 – Avegant Focus Planes (“Light Field”)

While at CES 2017 I was invited to Avegant’s Suite and was expecting to see a new and improved and/or a lower cost version of the Avegant Glyph. The Glyph  was a hardly revolutionary; it is a DLP display based, non-see-through near eye display built into a set of headphones with reasonably good image quality. Based on what I was expecting, it seemed like a bit much to be signing an NDA just to see what they were doing next.

But what Avegant showed was essentially what Magic Leap (ML) has been claiming to do in terms of focus planes/”light-fields” with vergence & accommodation.  But Avegant had accomplished this with likely less than 1/100th the amount of money ML is reported to have raised (ML has raised to date about $1.4 billion). In one stroke they made ML more believable and at the same time raises the question why ML needed so much money.

What I saw – Technology Demonstrator

I was shown was a headset with two HDMI cables for video and USB cable for power and sensor data going to an external desktop computer all bundle together. A big plus for me was that there enough eye relief that I could wear my own glasses (I have severe astigmatism so just diopter adjustments don’t work for me). The picture at left is the same or similar prototype I wore. The headset was a bit bulkier than say Hololens, plus the bundle of cables coming out of it. Avegant made it clear that this was an engineering prototype and nowhere near a finished product.

The mixed reality/see-through headset merges the virtual world with the see-through real world. I was shown three (3) mixed reality (MR) demos, a moving Solar System complete with asteroids, a Fish Tank complete with fish swimming around objects in the room and a robot/avatar woman.

Avegant makes the point that the content was easily ported from Unity into their system with fish tank video model coming from the Monterrey Bay Aquarium and the woman and solar system being downloaded from the Unity community open source library.  The 3-D images were locked to the “real world” taking this from simple AR into be MR. The tracking was not all perfect, nor did I care, the point of the demo was the focal planes, lots of companies are working on tracking.

It is easy to believe that by “turning the crank” they can eliminate the bulky cables and  the tracking and locking to between the virtual and real world will improve. It was a technology capability demonstrator and on that basis it has succeeded.

What Made It Special – Multiple Focal Planes / “Light Fields”

What ups the game from say Hololens and takes it into the realm of Magic Leap is that it supported simultaneous focal planes, what Avegant call’s “Light Fields” (a bit different than true “light fields” to as I see it). The user could change what they were focusing in the depth of the image and bring things that were close or far into focus. In other words, they simultaneously present to the eye multiple focuses. You could also by shifting your eyes see behind objects a bit. This clearly is something optically well beyond Hololens which does simple stereoscopic 3-D and in no way presents multiple focus points to the eye at the same time.

In short, what I was seeing in terms of vergence and accommodation was everything Magic Leap has been claiming to do. But Avegant has clearly spent only very small fraction of the development cost and it was at least portable enough they had it set up in a hotel room and with optics that look to be economical to make.

Now it was not perfect nor was Avegant claiming it to be at this stage. I could see some artifacts, in particularly lots of what looked like faint diagonal lines. I’m not sure if these were a result of the multiple focal planes or some other issue such as a bug.

Unfortunately the only available “through the lens” video currently available is at about 1:01 in Avegant’s Introducing Avegant Light Field” Vimeo video. There are only a few seconds and it really does not demonstrate the focusing effects well.

Why Show Me?

So why were they more they were showing it to me, an engineer and known to be skeptical of demos? They knew of my blog and why I was invited to see the demo. Avegant was in some ways surprising open about what they were doing and answered most, but not all, of my technical questions. They appeared to be making an effort to make sure people understand it really works. It seems clear they wanted someone who would understand what they had done and could verify it it some something different.

What They Are Doing With the Display

While Avegant calls their technology “Light Fields” it is implemented with (directly quoting them) “a number of fixed digital focal planes, and then interpolate the planes in-between them.” Multiple focus planes have many of the same characteristics at classical light fields, but require much less image data be simultaneously presented to the eye and thus saving power on generating and displaying as much image data, much of which the eye will not “see”/use.

They are currently using a 720p DLP per eye for the display engine but they said they thought they could support other display technologies in the future. As per my discussion on Magic Leap from November 2016, DLP has a high enough field rate that they could support displaying multiple images with the focus changing between images if you can change the focus fast enough. If you are willing to play with (reduce) color depth, DLP could support a number of focus planes. Avegant would not confirm if they use time sequential focus planes, but I think it likely.

They are using “birdbath optics” per my prior article with a beam splitter and spherical semi-mirror /combiner (see picture at left). With a DLP illuminated by LEDs, they can afford the higher light losses of the birdbath design and support having a reasonable amount of transparency to the the real world. Note, waveguides also tend to lose/wast a large amount of light as well. Avegant said that the current system was 50% transparent to the real world but that the could make it more (by wasting more light).

Very importantly, a birdbath optical design can be very cheap (on the order of only a few dollars) whereas the waveguides can cost many tens of dollars (reportedly Hololen’s waveguides cost over $100 each). The birdbath optics also can support a very wide field of view (FOV), something generally very difficult/expensive to support with waveguides. The optical quality of a birdbath is generally much better than the best waveguides. The downside of the birdbath compared to waveguides that it is bulkier and does not look as much like ordinary glasses.

What they would not say – Exactly How It Works

The one key thing they would not say is how they are supporting the change in focus between focal planes. The obvious way to do it would with some kind of electromechanical device such as moving focus or a liquid filled lens (the obvious suspects). In a recent interview, they repeatedly said that there were no moving parts and that is was “economical to make.”

What They are NOT Doing (exactly) – Mechanical Focus and Eye/Pupil Tracking

After meeting with Avegant at CES I decided to check out their recent patent activity and found US 2016/0295202 (‘202). It show a birdbath optics system (but with a non-see through curved mirror). This configuration with a semi-mirror curved element would seem to do what I saw. In fact, it is very similar to what Magic Leap showed in their US application 2015/0346495.

Avegant’s ‘202 application uses a combination of a “tuning assembly 700” (some form of electro-mechanical focus).

It also uses eye tracking 500 to know where the pupil is aimed. Knowing where the pupil is aimed would, at least in theory, allow them to generate a focus plane for the where the eye is looking and then an out of focus plane for everything else. At least in theory that is how it would work, but this might be problematical (no fear, this is not what they are doing, remember).

I specifically asked Avegant about the ‘202 application and they said categorically that they were not using it and that the applications related to what they were using has not yet been published (I suspect it will be published soon, perhaps part of the reason they are announcing now). They categorically stated that there were “no moving parts” and that the “did not eye track” for the focal planes. They stated that the focusing effect would even work with say a camera (rather than an eye) and was in no way dependent on pupil tracking.

A lesson here is that even small companies file patents on concepts that they don’t use. But still this application gives insight into what Avegant was interested in doing and some clues has to how the might be doing it. Eliminate the eye tracking and substitute a non-mechanical focus mechanism that is rapid enough to support 3 to 6 focus planes and it might be close to what they are doing (my guess).

A Caution About “Demoware”

A big word of warning here about demoware. When seeing a demo, remember that you are being shown what makes the product look best and examples that might make it look not so good are not shown.

I was shown three short demos that they picked, I had no choice. I could not pick my own test cases.I also don’t know exactly the mechanism by which it works, which makes it hard to predict the failure mode, as in what type of content might cause artifacts. For example, everything I was shown was very slow moving. If they are using sequential focus planes, I would expect to see problems/artifacts with fast motion.

Avegant’s Plan for Further Development

Avegant is in the process of migrating away from requiring a big PC and onto mobile platforms such as smartphones. Part of this is continuing to address the computing requirement.

Clearly they are going to continue refining the mechanical design of the headset and will either get rid of or slim down the cables and have them go to a mobile computer.  They say that all the components are easily manufactureable and this I would tend to believe. I do wonder how much image data they have to send, but it appears they are able to do with just two HDMI cables (one per eye). It would seem they will be wire tethered to a (mobile) computing system. I’m more concerned about how the image quality might degrade with say fast moving content.

They say they are going to be looking at other (than the birdbath) combiner technology; one would assume a waveguide of some sort to make the optics thinner and lighter. But going to waveguides could hurt image quality and cost and may more limit the FOV.

Avegant is leveraging the openness of Unity to support getting a lot of content generation for their platform. They plan on a Unity SDK to support this migration.

They said they will be looking into alternatives for the DLP display, I would expect LCOS and OLED to be considered. They said that they had also thought about laser beam scanning but their engineers objected to trying for eye safety reasons; engineers are usually the first Guinea pigs for their own designs and a bug could be catastrophic. If they are using time sequential focal planes which is likely, then other technologies such as OLED, LCOS or Laser Beam Scanning cannot generate sequential planes fast enough to support that more than a few (1 to 3) focal planes per 1/60th of a second on a single device at maximum resolution.

How Important is Vergence/Accomodation (V/A)?

The simple answer is that it appears that Magic Leap raised $1.4B by demoing it. But as they say, “all that glitters is not gold.” The V/A conflict issue is real, but it mostly affects content that virtually appears “close”, say inside about 2 meters/6 feet.

Its not clear that for “everyday use” there might be simpler, less expensive and/or using less power ways to deal with V/A conflict such as pupil tracking. Maybe (don’t know) it would be enough to simply change the focus point when the user is doing close up work rather than have multiple focal planes presented to the eye simultaneously .

The business question is whether solving V/A alone will make AR/MR take off? I think the answer to this is clearly no, this is not the last puzzle piece to be solved before AR/MR will take off. It is one of a large number of issues yet to be solved. Additionally, while Avegant says they have solved it economically, what is economical is relative. It still has added weight, power, processing, and costs associated with it and it has negative impacts on the image quality; the classic “squeezing the balloon” problem.

Even if V/A added nothing and cost nothing extra, there are still many other human factor issues that severely limit the size of the market. At times like this, I like to remind people the the Artificial Intelligence boom in the 1980s (over 35 years ago) that it seemed all the big and many small companies were chasing as the next era of computing. There were lots of “breakthroughs” back then too, but the problem was bigger than all the smart people and money could solve.

BTW, it you want to know more about V/A and related issues, I highly recommend reading papers and watching videos by Gordon Wetzstein of Stanford. Particularly note his work on “compressive light field displays” which he started working on while at MIT. He does an excellent job of taking complex issues and making them understandable.

Generally Skeptical About The Near Term Market for AR/MR

I’m skeptical that with or without Avegant’s technology, the Mixed Reality (MR) market is really set to take off for at least 5 years (an likely more). I’ve participated in a lot of revolutionary markets (early video game chips, home/personal computers, graphics accelerators, the Synchronous DRAMs, as well as various display devices) and I’m not a Luddite/flat-earther, I simply understand the challenges still left unsolved and there are many major ones.

Most of the market forecasts for huge volumes in the next 5 years are written by people that don’t have a clue as to what is required, they are more science fiction writers than technologist. You can already see companies like Microsoft with Hololens and before them Google with Google Glass, retrenching/regrouping.

Where Does Avegant Go Business Wise With this Technology?

Avegant is not a big company. They were founding in in 2012. My sources tell me that they have raise about $25M and I have heard that they have only sold about $5M to $10M worth of their first product, the Avegant Glyph. I don’t see the Glyph ever as being a high volume product with a lot of profit to support R&D.

A related aside: I have yet to see a Glyph “in the wild” being using say on an airplane (where they would make the most sense). Even though the Glyph and other headsets exist, people given a choice still by vast percentages still prefer larger smartphones and tablets for watching media on the go. The Glyph sells for about $500 now and is very bulky to store, whereas a tablet easily slips into a backpack or other bag and the display is “free”/built in.

But then, here you have this perhaps “key technology” that works and that is doing something that Magic Leap has raised over $1.4 Billion dollars to try and do. It is possible (having not thoroughly tested either one), that Avegant’s is better than ML’s. Avegant’s technology is likely much more cost effective to make than ML’s, particularly if ML’s depends on using their complex waveguide.

Having not seen the details on either Avegant’s or ML’s method, I can’t say which is “best” both image wise and in terms of cost, nor whether from a patent perspective, whether Avegant’s is different from ML.

So Avegant could try and raise money to do it on their own, but they would have to raise a huge amount to last until the market matures and compete with much bigger companies working in the area. At best they have solved one (of many) interesting puzzle pieces.

It seems obvious (at least to me) that more likely good outcome for them would be as a takeover target by someone that has the deep pockets to invest in mixed reality for the long haul.

But this should certainly make the Magic Leap folks and their investors take notice. With less fanfare, and a heck of a lot less money, Avegant has as solution to the vergence/accommodation problem that ML has made such a big deal about.

Near-Eye Bird Bath Optics Pros and Cons – And IMMY’s Different Approach

Why Birdbaths Optics? Because the Alternative (Waveguides) Must Be Worse (and a teaser)

The idea for this article started when I was looking at the ODG R-9 optical design with OLED microdisplays. They combined an OLED microdisplay that is not very bright in terms of nits with a well known “birdbath” optical design that has very poor light throughput. It seems like a horrible combination. I’m fond of saying “when intelligent people chose a horrible design, the alternative must have seemed worse

I’m going to “beat up” so to speak the birdbath design by showing how some fundamental light throughput numbers multiply out and why the ODG R-9 I measured at CES blocks so much of the real world light. The R-9 also has a serious issue with reflections. This is the same design that a number of publications considered among the “best innovations” of CES; it seems to me that they must have only looked at the display superficially.

Flat waveguides such as used by Hololens, Vuzix. Wave Optics, and Lumus as well as expected from Magic Leap get most of the attention, but I see a much larger number of designs using what is known as a “birdbath” and similar optical designs. Waveguides are no secret these days and the fact that so many designs still use the birdbath optics tells you a lot about the issues with waveguides. Toward the end of this article, I’m going to talk a little about the IMMY design that replaces part of the birdbath design.

As a teaser, this article is to help prepare for an article on an interesting new headset I will be writing about next week.

Birdbath Optics (So Common It Has a Name)

The birdbath combines two main optical components, a spherical mirror/combiner (part-mirror) and a beam splitter. The name  “birdbath” comes from the spherical mirror/combiner looking like a typical birdbath. It is used because it generally is comparatively inexpensive to down right cheap while also being relatively small/compact while having  good overall image quality. The design fundamentally supports a very wide FOV, which are at best difficult to support with waveguides. The big downsides are light throughput and reflections.

A few words about Nits (Cd/m²) and Micro-OLEDs

I don’t have time here to get into a detailed explanation of nits (Cd/m²). Nits is the measure of light at a given angle whereas lumens is the total light output. The simplest analogy is to water hose with a nozzle (apropos here since we are talking about birdbaths). Consider two spray patterns, one with a tight jet of water and one with a wide fan pattern both outputting the exact same total amount of water per minute (lumens in this analogy). The one with the tight patter would have high water pressure (nits in this analogy) over a narrow angle where the fan spray would have lower water pressure (nits) over a wider angle.

Additionally, it would be relatively easy to put something in the way of the tight jet and turn it into a fan spray but there is no way to turn the fan spray into a jet. This applies to light as well, it is much easier to go from high nits over are narrow angle to lower nits over a wide angle (say with a diffuser) but you can’t go the other way easily.

Light from an OLED is like the fan spray only it covers a 180 degree hemisphere. This can be good for a large flat panel were you want a wide viewing angle but is a problem for a near eye display where you want to funnel all the light into the eye because so much of the light will miss pupil of the eye and is wasted. With an LED you have a relative small point of light that can be funneled/collimated into a tight “jet” of light to illuminate an LCOS or DLP microdisplay.

The combination of light output from LEDs and the ability to collimate the light means you can easily get tens of thousands of nits with an LCOS or DLP illuminated microdisplay were OLED microdisplays typically only have 200 to 300 nits. This is major reason why most see-through near eye displays use LCOS and DLP over OLEDs.

Basic Non-Polarizing Birdbath (example, ODG R-9)

The birdbath has two main optical components, a flat beam splitter and a spherical mirror. In the case a see-through designs, the the spherical mirror is a partial mirror so the spherical element acts as a combiner. The figure below is taken from an Osterhaut Design Group (ODG) patent which and shows simple birdbath using an OLED microdisplay such as their ODG R-9. Depending on various design requirements, the curvature of the mirror, and the distances, the lenses 16920 in the figure may not be necessary.

The light from the display device, in the case of the ODG R-9 is a OLED microdisplay, is first reflect away from the eye and perpendicular (on-axis) to the curved beam splitter so that a simple spherical combiner will uniformly magnify and move the apparent focus point of the image (if not “on axis” the image will be distorted and the magnification will vary across the image). The curved combiner (partial mirror) has minimal optical distortion on light passing through.

Light Losses (Multiplication is a Killer)

A big downside to the birdbath design is the loss of light. The image light must make two passes at the beam splitter, a reflective and transmissive, with a reflective (Br) and transmissive (Bt) percentages of light. The light making it through both passes is Lr x Lt.  A 50/50 beam splitter might be about 48% reflective and transmissive (with say a 4% combined loss), and the light throughput (Br x Bt) in this example is only 48% x 48%= ~23%. And “50/50” ratio is the best case; if we assume a nominally 80/20 beam splitter (with still 4% total loss) we get 78% x 18% = ~14% of the light making through the two passes.

Next we have the light loss of the spherical combiner. This is a trade-off of image light being reflected (Cr) versus being transmitted  (Ct) to the real world where Cr + Ct is less than 1 due to losses. Generally you want the Cr to be low so the Ct can be high so you can see out (otherwise it is not much of a see through display).

So lets say the combiner has Cr=11% and the Ct=75% with about 4% loss with the 50/50 beamsplitter. The net light throughput assuming a “50/50” beam splitter and a 75% transmissive combiner is Br x Cr X Bt = ~2.5% !!! These multiplicative losses lose all but a small percentage of the display’s light. And consider that the “real world” net light throughput is Ct x Bt which would be 48% x 75% = 36% which is not great and would be too dark for indoor use.

Now lets say you want the glasses to be at least 80% transmissive so they would be considered usable indoors. You might have the combiner Ct=90% making Cr=6% (with 4% loss) and then Bt=90% making Br=6%. This gives the real world transmissive about 90%x90% = 81%.  But then you go back and realize the display light equation (Br x Cr X Bt) becomes 6%x6%x90% = 0.3%. Yes, only 3/1000ths of the starting image light makes it through. 

Why the ODG R-9 Is Only About 4% to 5% “See-Through”

Ok, now back to the specific case of the ODG R-9. The ODG R-9 has an OLED microdisplay that most like has about 250 nits (200 to 250 nits is commonly available today) and they need to get about 50 nits (roughly) to the eye from the display to have a decent image brightness indoors in a dark room (or one where most of the real world light is blocked). This means they need a total throughput of 50/250=20%. The best you can do with two passes through a beam splitter (see above) is about 23%.  This forces the spherical combiner to be highly reflective with little transmission. You need something that reflects 20/23=~87% of the light and only about 9% transmissive. The real world light then making it through to the eye is then about 9% x 48% (Ct x Bt) or about 4.3%.

There are some other effects such as the amount of total magnification and I don’t know exactly what their OLED display is outputting display and exact nits at the eyepiece, but I believe my numbers are in the ballpark. My camera estimates for the ODG R-9 came in a between 4% and 5%. When you are blocking about 95% of the real world light, are you really much of a “see-through” display?

Note, all this is BEFORE you consider adding say optical shutters or something like Varilux® light blocking. Normally the birdbath design is used with non-see through designs (where you don’t have the see-through losses) or with DLP® or LCOS devices illuminated with much higher nits (can be in the 10’s of thousands) for see through designs so they can afford the high losses of light.

Seeing Double

There are also issues with getting a double image off of each face of plate beam splitter and other reflections. Depending on the quality of each face, a percentage of light is going to reflect or pass through that you don’t want. This light will be slightly displaced based on the thickness of the beamsplitter. And because the light makes two passes, there are two opportunities to cause double images. Any light that is reasonably “in focus” is going to show up as a ghost/double image (for good or evil, your eye has a wide dynamic range and can see even faint ghost images). Below is a picture I took with my iPhone camera of a white and clear menu through the ODG R-9. I counted at least 4 ghost images (see colored arrows).

As a sort of reference, you can see the double image effect of the beamsplitter going in the opposite direction to the image light with my badge and the word “Media” and its ghost (in the red oval).

Alternative Birdbath Using Polarized Light (Google Glass)

Google Glass used a different variation of the birdbath design. They were willing to accept a much smaller field of view and thus could reasonably embedded the optics in glass. It is interesting here to compare and contrast this design with the ODG one above.

First they started with an LCOS microdisplay that was illuminated by LEDs that can be very much brighter and more collimated light resulting in much higher (can be orders of magnitude) starting nits than an OLED microdisplay can output. The LED light is passed through a polarizing beam splitter than will pass about 45% P light to the LCOS device (245). Note a polarizing beam splitter passes one polarization and reflect the other unlike a the partially reflecting beam splitter in the ODG design above. The LCOS panel will rotate the light to be seen to S polarization so that it will reflect about 98% (with say 2% loss) of the S light.

The light then goes to a second polarizing beam splitter that is also acting as the “combiner” that the user sees the real world through. This beam splitter is set up to pass about 90% of the S light and reflect about 98% of the P light (they are usually much better/more-efficient in reflection). You should notice that they have a λ/4 (quarter wave = 45 degree rotation) film between the beam splitter and the spherical mirror which will rotate the light 90 degrees (turning it from S to P) after it passes through it twice. This  λ/4 “trick” is commonly used with polarized light. And since you don’t have to look through the mirror, it can be say 98% reflective with say another 3% loss for the λ/4.

With this design, about 45% (one pass through the beamsplitter) of the real world makes it through, but only light polarized the “right way” makes it through which makes looking at say LCD monitors problematical. By using the quarter wave film the design is pretty efficient AFTER you loose about 55% of the LED light in polarizing it initially. There are also less reflection issues because all the films and optics are embedded in glass so you don’t get these air to glass index mismatches of off two surfaces of a relatively thick plate that cause unwanted reflections/double images.

Google Glass design has a lot of downsides too. There is nothing you can do to get the light throughput of the real world much above 45% and there are always the problems of looking through a polarizer. But the biggest downside is that it cannot be scaled up for larger fields of view and/or more eye relief. As you scale this design up the block of glass becomes large, heavy and expensive as well as being very intrusive/distorting in looking through a big thick piece of glass.

Without getting too sidetracked, Lumus in effect takes the one thick beam splitter, and piece-wise cuts it into multiple smaller beam splitters to make the glass thinner. But this also means you can’t use the spherical mirror of a birdbath design with it and so you require optics before the beam splitting and the light losses of the the piece-wise beam splitting are much larger than a single beamsplitter.

Larger Designs

An alternative design would mix the polarizing beamsplitters of the Google Glass design above with the configuration of ODG design above.  And this has been done many times through the years with LCOS panels that use polarized light (an example can be found in this 2003 paper). The spherical mirror/combiner will be a partial non-polarizing mirror so you can see through it and a quarter waveplate is used between the spherical combiner and the polarizing beam splitter. You are then stuck with about 45% of the real world light times the light throughput of the spherical combiner.

A DLP with a “birdbath” would typically use the non-polarizing beam splitter with a design similar to the ODG R-9 but replacing the OLED microdisplay with a DLP and illumination. As an example, Magic Leap did this with a DLP but adding a variable focus lens to support focus planes.

BTW, by the time you polarized the light from an OLED or DLP microdisplay, there would not be much if any of an efficiency advantage sense to use polarizing beamsplitters. Additionally, the light from the OLED is so diffused (varied in angles) that it would likely not behave well going through the beam splitters.

IMMY – Eliminating the Beamsplitter

The biggest light efficiency killer in the birdbath design is the combined reflective/transmissive passes via the beamsplitter. IMMY effectively replaces the beamsplitter of the birdbath design with two small curved mirrors that he correct for the image being reflected off-axis from the larger curved combiner. I have not yet seen how well this design works in practice but at least the numbers would appear to work better. One can expect only a few percentage points of light being lost off of each of the two small mirrors so that maybe 95% of the light from the OLED display make it to the large combiner. Then you have the the combiner reflection percentage (Cr) multiplying by about 95% rather than the roughly 23% of the birdbath beam splitter.

The real world light also benefits as it only has to go through a single combiner transmissive loss (Ct) and no beamsplitter (Bt) loses. Taking the OGD R-9 example above and assuming we started with a 250 nit OLED and with 50 nits to the eye, we could get there with about an 75% transmissive combiner. The numbers are at least starting to get into the ballpark where improvements in OLED Microdisplays could fit at least for indoor use (outdoor designs without sunshading/shutters need on the order of 3,000 to 4,000 nits).

It should be noted that IMMY says they also have “Variable transmission outer lens with segmented addressability” to support outdoor use and variable occlusion. Once again this is their claim, I have not yet tried it out in practice so I don’t know the issues/limitations. My use of IMMY here is to contrast it with the classical birdbath designs above.

A possible downside to the the IMMY multi-mirror design is bulk/size has seen below. Also noticed the two adjustment wheel for each eye. One is for interpupillary distance to make sure the optics line up center with the pupils which varies from person to person. The other knob is a diopter (focus) adjustment which also suggests you can’t wear these over your normal glasses.

As I have said, I have not seen IMMY’s to see how it works and to see what faults it might have (nothing is perfect) so this is in no way an endorsement for their design. The design is so straight forward and a seemingly obvious solution to the beam splitter loss problem that it makes me wonder why nobody has been using it earlier; usually in these cases, there is a big flaw that is not so obvious.

See-Though AR Is Tough Particularly for OLED

As one person told me at CES, “Making a near eye display see-through generally more than double the cost” to which I would add, “it also has serious adverse affects on the image quality“.

The birdbath design wastes a lot of light as do every other see-through designs. Waveguide designs can be equally or more light wasteful than the birdbath. At least on paper, the IMMY design would appear to waste a less than most others. But to make a device say 90% see through, at best you start by throwing away over 90% of the image light/nits generated, and often more than 95%.

The most common solution to day is to start with LED illuminated LCOS or DLP microdisplay so you have a lot of nits to throw at the problem and just accept the light waste. OLEDs are still orders of magnitude in brightness/nits away from being able to compete with LCOS and DLP with brute force.

 

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.”

Everything VR & AR Podcast Interview with Karl Guttag About Magic Leap

With all the buzz surrounding Magic Leap and this blog’s technical findings about Magic Leap, I was asked to do an interview by the “Everything VR & AR Podcast” hosted by Kevin Harvell. The podcast is available on iTunes and by direct link to the interview here.

The interview starts with about 25 minutes of my background starting with my early days at Texas Instruments. So if you just want to hear about Magic Leap and AR you might want to skip ahead a bit. In the second part of the interview (about 40 minutes) we get into discussing how I went about figuring out what Magic Leap was doing. This includes discussing how the changes in the U.S. patent system signed into law in 2011 with the America Invents Act help make the information available for me to study.

There should be no great surprises for anyone that has followed this blog. It puts in words and summarizes a lot that I have written about in the last 2 months.

Update: I listen to the podcast and noticed that I misspoke a few times; it happens in live interviews.  An unfathomable mistake is that I talked about graduating college in 1972 but that was high school; I graduated from Bradley University with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 1976 and then received and MSEE from The University of Michigan in 1977 (and joined TI in 1977).  

I also think I greatly oversimplified the contribution of Mark Harward as a co-founder at Syndiant. Mark did much more than just have desigeners, he was the CEO, an investor, and and the company while I “played” with the technology, but I think Mark’s best skill was in hiring great people. Also, Josh Lund, Tupper Patnode, and Craig Waller were co-founders. 

 

Kopin Entering OLED Microdisplay Market

Kopin Making OLED Microdisplays

Kopin announced today that they are getting into the OLED Microdisplay business. This is particularly notable because Kopin has been a long time (since 1999) manufacture of transmissive LCD microdisplays used in camera viewfinders and near eye display devices. They also bought Forth Dimension Displays back in 2011, a maker of high resolution ferroelectric reflective LCOS used in higher end near eye products.

OLED Microdisplays Trending in AR/VR Market

With the rare exception of the large and bulky Meta 2, microdisplays, (LCOS, DLP, OLED, and transmissive LCD), dominate the AR/MR see-through market. They also are a significant factor in VR and other non-see-through near eye displays

Kopins entry seems to be part of what may be a trend toward OLED Microdisplays used in near eye products. ODG’s next generation “Horizon” AR glasses is switching from LCOS (used in the current R7) to OLED microdisplays. Epson which was a direct competitor to Kopin in transmissive LCD, switched to OLED microdisplays in their new Moverio BT-300 AR glasses announced back in February.

OLED Microdisplays Could Make VR and Non-See-Through Headsets Smaller/Lighter

Today most of the VR headsets are following Oculus’s use of large flat panels with simple optics. This leads to large bulky headsets, but the cost of OLED and LCD flat panels is so low compared to other microdisplays with their optics that they win out. OLED microdisplays have been far too expensive to compete on price with the larger flat panels, but this could change as there are more entrants into the OLED microdisplay market.

OLEDs Don’t Work With Waveguides As Used By Hololens and Magic Leap

It should be noted that the broad spectrum and diffuse light emitted by OLED is generally incompatible with the flat waveguide optics such as used by Hololens and is expected from Magic Leap (ML). So don’t expect to see these being used by Hololens and ML anytime soon unless they radically redesign their optics. Illuminated microdisplays like DLP and LCOS can be illuminated by narrower spectrum light sources such as LED and even lasers and the light can be highly collimated by the illumination optics.

Transmissive LCD Microdisplays Can’t Compete As Resolution Increases

If anything, this announcement from Kopin is the last nail in the coffin of the transmissive LCD microdisplay in the future. OLED Microdisplays have the advantages over transmissive Micro-LCD in the ability to go to higher resolution and smaller pixels to keep the overall display size down for a given resolution when compared to transmissive LCD. OLEDs consume less power for the same brightness than transmissive LCD. OLED also have much better contrast. As resolution increases transmissive LCDs cannot compete.

OLEDs Microdisplays More Of A Mixed Set of Pros and Cons Compared to LCOS and DLP.

There is a mix of pro’s and con’s when comparing OLED microdisplays with LCOS and DLP. The Pro’s for OLED over LCOS and DLP include:

  1. Significantly simpler optical path (illumination path not in the way). Enables optical solutions not possible with reflective microdisplays
  2. Lower power for a given brightness
  3. Separate RGB subpixels so there is no field sequential color breakup
  4. Higher contrast.

The advantages for LCOS and DLP reflective technologies over OLED microdisplays include:

  1. Smaller pixel equals a smaller display for a given resoluion. DLP and LCOS pixels are typically from 2 to 10 times smaller in area per pixel.
  2. Ability to use narrow band light sources which enable the use of waveguides (flat optical combiners).
  3. Higher brightness
  4. Longer lifetime
  5. Lower cost even including the extra optics and illumination

Up until recently, the cost of OLED microdisplays were so high that only defense contractors and other applications that could afford the high cost could consider them. But that seems to be changing. Also historically the brightness and lifetimes of OLED microdisplays were limited. But companies are making progress.

OLED Microdisplay Competition

Kopin is long from being the first and certainly is not the biggest entry in the OLED microdisplay market. But Kopin does have a history of selling volume into the microdisplay market. The list of known competitors includes:

  1. Sony appears to be the biggest player. They have been building OLED microdisplays for many years for use in camera viewfinders. They are starting to bring higher resolution products to the market and bring the costs down.
  2. eMagin is a 23-year-old “startup”. They have a lot of base technology and are a “pure play” stock wise. But they have failed to break through and are in danger of being outrun by big companies
  3. MicoOLED – Small France startup – not sure where they really stand.
  4. Samsung – nothing announced but they have all the technology necessary to make them. Update: Ron Mertens of OLED-Info.com informed me that I was rumored that the second generation of Google Glass was considering a Samsung OLED microdisplay and that Samsung had presented a paper going back to 2011.
  5.  LG – nothing announced but they have all the technology necessary to make them.

I included Samsung and LG above not because I have seen or heard of them working on them, but I would be amazed if they didn’t at least have a significant R&D effort given their sets of expertise and their extreme interest in this market.

For More Information:

For more complete information on the OLED microdisplay market, you might want go to OLED-info that has been following both large flat panel and small OLED microdisplay devices for many years. They also have two reports available, OLED Microdisplays Market Report and OLED for VR and AR Market Report.

For those who want to know more about Kopin’s manufacturing plan, Chris Chinnock of Insight Media has an interesting article outlining Kopin’s fabless development strategy.

Magic Leap: Focus Planes (Too) Are a Dead End

What Magic Leap Appears to be Doing

For this article I would like to dive down on the most likely display and optics Magic Leap (ML) is developing for their their Product Equivalent (PEQ). The PEQ was discussed in the “The Information” story “The Reality Behind Magic Leap.” As I explained in my  November 20, 2016 article Separating Magic and Reality (before the Dec 8th “The Information” story) the ML patent application US 2016/0327789 best fits the available evidence and if anything the “The Information” article reinforce that conclusion. Recapping the evidence:

  1. ML uses a “spatial light modulator” as stated in “The Information”
  2. Most likely an LCOS spatial light modulator and the Oct. 27th 2017 Inside Business citing “KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who has a reputation for being tapped into the Asian consumer electronics supply chain” claims ML is using a Himax LCOS device.
  3. Focus planes to support vergence/accommodation per many ML presentations and their patent applications
  4. Uses waveguides which fit the description and pictures of what ML calls a “Photonics Chip”
  5. Does not have a separate focus mechanism as reported in the “The Information” article.
  6. Could fit the form factor as suggested in “The Information”
  7. Its the only patent that shows serious optical design that also uses what could be considered a “Photonics chip.”

I can’t say with certainty that the optical path is that of application 2016/0327789. It is just the only optical path in the ML patent applications that fits all the available evidence and and has a chance of working.

Field of View (FOV)

Rony Abovitz, ML CEO, is claiming a larger a larger FOV.  I would think ML would not want to be have lower angular resolution than Hololens. Keeping the same 1.7 arc minutes per pixel angular resolution as Hololens and ODG’s Horizon, this would give a horizontal FOV of about 54.4 degrees.

Note, there are rumors that Hololens is going to be moving to a 1080p device next year so ML may still not have an advantage by the time they actually have a product. There is a chance that ML will just use a 720p device, at least at first, and accept lower angular resolution of say 2.5 or greater to get into the 54+ FOV range. Supporting a larger FOV is not small trick with waveguides and is  one thing that ML might have over Hololoens; but then again Hololens is not standing still.

Sequential Focus Planes Domino Effect

The support of vergence/accommodation appears to be a paramount issue with ML. Light fields are woefully impractical for any reasonable resolution, so ML in their patent application and some of their demo videos show the concept of “focus planes.” But for every focus plane an image has to be generated and displayed.

The cost of having more than one display per eye including the optics to combine the multiple displays would be both very costly and physically large. So the only rational way ML could support focus planes is to use a single display device and sequentially display the focus planes. But as I will outline below, using sequential focus planes to address vergence/accommodation, comes at the cost of hurting other visual comfort issues.

Expect Field Sequential Color Breakup If Magic Leap Supports “Focus Planes”

Both high resolution LCOS and DLP displays use “field sequential color” where they have a single set of mirrors that display a single color plane at a time. To get the colors to fuse together in the eye they repeat the same colors multiple times per frame of an image. Where I have serious problems with ML using Himax LCOS is that instead of repeating colors to reduce the color breakup, they will be instead be showing different images to support Sequential Focus Planes. Even if they have just two focus planes as suggested in “The Information,” it means they will reduce the rate repeating of colors to help them fuse in the eye is cut in half.

The Hololens which also uses a field sequential color LCOS one can already detect breakup. Cutting the color update rate by 2 or more will make this problem significantly worse.

Another interesting factor is that field sequential color breakup tends to be more noticeable by people’s peripheral vision which is more motion/change sensitive. This means the problem will tend to get worse as the FOV increases.

I have worked many years with field sequential display devices, specifically LCOS. Based on this experience I expect that the human vision system  will do a poor job of “fusing” the colors at such slow color field update rates and I would expect people will see a lot of field sequential color breakup particularly when objects move.

In short, I expect a lot of color breakup to be noticeable if ML support focus planes with a field sequential color device (LCOS or DLP).

Focus Planes Hurt Latency/Lag and Will Cause Double Images

An important factor in human comfort is the latency/lag between any head movement and the display reacting can cause user discomfort. A web search will turn up thousands of references about this problem.

To support focus planes ML must use a display fast enough to support at least 120 frame per second. But to support just two focus planes it will take them 1/60th of a second to sequentially display both focus planes. Thus they have increase the total latency/lag from the time they sense movement until the display is updated by ~8.333 milliseconds and this is on top of any other processing latency. So really focus planes is trading off one discomfort issue, vergence/accommodation, for another, latency/lag.

Another issue which concerns me is how well sequential focus planes are doing to fuse in the eye. With fast movement the eye/brain visual system is takes its own asynchronous “snapshots” and tries to assemble the information and line it up. But as with field sequential color, it can put together time sequential information wrong, particularly if some objects in the image move and others don’t. The result will be double images, getting double images with sequential focus planes would be unavoidable with fast movement either in the virtual world or when a person moves their eyes. These problems will be compounded by color field sequential breakup.

Focus Planes Are a Dead End – Might Magic Leap Have Given Up On Them?

I don’t know all the behind the scenes issues with what ML told investors and maybe ML has been hemmed in by their own words and demos to investors. But as an engineer with most of my 37 years in the industry working with image generation and display, it looks to me that focus planes causes bigger problems than it solves.

What gets me is that they should have figured out that focus planes were hopeless in the first few months (much less if someone that knew what they were doing was there). Maybe they were ego driven and/or they built to much around the impression they made with their “Beast” demo system (big system using DLPs). Then maybe they hand waved away the problems sequential focus planes cause thinking they could fix them somehow or hoped that people won’t notice the problems. It would certainly not be the first time that a company committed to a direction and then felt that is had gone to far to change course. Then there is always the hope that “dumb consumers” won’t see the problems (in this case I think they will).

It is clear to me that like Fiber Scan Displays (FSD), focus planes are a dead end, period, full-stop. Vergence/accommodation is a real issue but only for objects that get reasonably close to the users. I think a much more rational way to address the issue is to use sensors to track the eyes/pupils and adjust the image accordingly as the eye’s focus changes relatively slowly it should be possible to keep up. In short, move the problem from the physical display and optics domain (that will remain costly and problematical), to the sensor and processing domain (that will more rapidly come down in cost).

If I’m at Hololens, ODG, or any other company working on an AR/MR systems and accept that vergence/accommodation is a problem needs to be to solve, I’m going to solve it with eye/pupil sensing and processing, not by screwing up everything else by doing it with optics and displays. ML’s competitors have had enough warning to already be well into developing solutions if they weren’t prior to ML making such a big deal about the already well known issue.

The question I’m left is if and when did Magic Leap figured this out and were they too committed by ego or what they told investors to focus planes to change at that point? I have not found evidence so far in their patent applications that they tried to changed course, but these patent applications will be about 18 months or more behind what they decided to do. But if they don’t use focus planes, they would have to admit that they are much closer to Hololens and other competitors than they would like the market to think.