In 2022, hype around extended reality (XR) devices and the metaverse is at an all-time high, but hardware hurdles continue to hold back headset development. The specialized optics required by augmented and mixed reality (AR & MR) headsets have so far proved to be one of the industry’s major stumbling blocks. In virtual reality (VR) headsets, there is a growing usage of new, unconventional lens types to solve the deficiencies of the Fresnel lens-based architectures that have dominated until now.
IDTechEx has been covering the XR industry since 2015, staying close to the technical and market developments, interviewing key players worldwide, attending numerous conferences, and delivering multiple consulting projects. The new IDTechEx report, “Optics for Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality 2022-2032: Technologies, Players and Markets” offers a detailed analysis of the key technologies enabling XR devices to be immersive, light, and unobtrusive. 10-year granular market forecasts, segmented into 20 different technologies, are provided, along with analysis of the industry’s material demands. The report includes multiple company profiles based on interviews with major players across these technologies.
AR/MR Optics: Optical Combiners, Waveguides, and Ancillary Lenses
The AR optics landscape. Source: IDTechEx – “Optics for Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality 2022-2032: Technologies, Players and Markets”
In 2022, a consensus is emerging that optical waveguides are the way forward to enabling immersive AR/MR by overlaying created reality onto the real. Surface relief diffractive waveguides, as used in Hololens and Magic Leap devices, have made early strides. Manufactured via processes inherited from the silicon industry, these enable relatively slim and compact devices but suffer from high costs, image quality issues and poor efficiency. Holographic diffractive waveguides and reflective waveguides offer alternatives which promise to revolutionize manufacturability and redefine image quality respectively but have yet to gain significant traction.
Other optical combiner technologies, particularly “birdbath” and freespace holographic combiners, also offer convincing candidates for AR/MR headset designers, particularly where cost or compactness, respectively, are top priority. As different technologies fit different headset types, “Optics for Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality 2022-2032: Technologies, Players and Markets” segments the AR/MR market into wide vs. narrow field of view, highlighting the likely technological winners for each category. Further discussion is devoted to the status of ancillary lenses for waveguides, which enable correction of eyewear prescriptions and solving the vergence-accommodation conflict.
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VR Optics: Emerging Lens Technologies vs. Fresnel Lenses
For most VR users, the currently dominant Fresnel lenses used to magnify images and bring them into comfortable focus are “good enough”. These lightweight, low-cost optics, typically molded or embossed in plastic allow relatively compact headsets but have drawbacks in terms of ring artifacts, color contrast, and more – in 2022, they have little scope for further development. Competing technologies entering the market solve many of these issues while adding functionality and making headsets smaller – IDTechEx’s report highlights the upcoming path of progress here.
The first wave of new designs focuses on compactness. Pancake lenses saw their first entry into Western headset markets in 2021 and are expected to be used in an upcoming device from Meta this year. These lenses promise more compact designs by folding the optical path, allowing dioptric correction, and are devoid of Fresnel artifacts. However, they offer tough development challenges, with lower optical efficiency and preventing double images through material development key amongst these.
Later iterations will solve the vergence-accommodation conflict, maximizing immersion. Dynamically focus-tunable geometric phase lens arrays may offer the final say in VR optics yet remain years from deployment. Based on holography or metasurfaces, these have seen interest and patent activity from major players including Meta, Valve, and Apple. This once-static field has transformed into a hotbed for innovation.
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