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.
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.