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CES 2021 – AR and VR headsets: are they getting closer to consumers?

I was really looking forward to attending my first Consumer Electronics Show (CES) live in 2021. I missed 2020 due to other commitments, and then we all know what happened. As Eric Virey mentioned in his excellent and thorough review of the event, “a virtual CES is a very different experience from the usual”. The thing is, for augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) applications, it is even more difficult to remotely assess the quality and the improvements that may have happened. We are talking about devices that are supposed to alter our reality. No amount of carefully tuned computer-modified screenshots or videos can really make someone know what they’d really see. Yet there have been announcements about displays and optics for AR and VR headsets. Here I look at them and link them with our past assumptions.

MicroLEDs are around the corner

MicroLED microdisplays in AR headsets have been finally shown in a product from Vuzix. Many years ago, Vuzix had partnered with Plessey Semiconductors. We wondered how they would continue down this development path when Facebook signed an exclusive contract with Plessey in March 2020, putting a hold on all partnerships. Vuzix gets its microLED microdisplays from Shanghai based Jade Bird Display (JBD), which is proving to be the leading force today in microLED microdisplay supply. As we explained in our Microdisplays – Market, Industry and Technology Trends 2020 report, making native multicolor microLED microdisplays is nontrivial. Vuzix ensures that both monochrome and red/green/blue (RGB) solutions are actively being developed for use. JBD’s solution so far is to combine monochrome microLED microdisplay panels with an X-cube prism to form an RGB microdisplay module.

We expect these products in the second half of 2021. They most likely will be monochromatic solutions.

YDR20080-Augmented Reality market trend – Scenario expectations for consumer

From bulky AR headsets to sleek designs thanks to waveguides

The partnership between JBD and Vuzix goes beyond mere supply of microLED microdisplays. It actually goes both ways. Vuzix will provide newly developed proprietary waveguides and display engine optics to work with these microdisplays. These waveguides allow for a sleek form factor, approaching a pair of reading glasses. Vuzix has been working on diffractive optical element (DOE)-like structures and was already using them in its Blade® model.

Vuzix MicroLED Display Engine. Courtesy of Vuzix

DOEs are one of the major waveguide technologies on the market, developed by Microsoft, Magic Leap, Dispelix, WaveOptics and probably other companies in stealth mode. Holographic optical elements (HOEs) are mainly driven by Digilens, which did not communicate during CES. Another probable major player in HOEs would be Apple. Crazy rumors are floating around on the Internet, but we are yet to see a consumer-oriented headset.

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Also, don’t forget reflective optical elements (ROEs) that take a different approach. They keep improving and may very well be in future consumer headsets, after having been implemented in select enterprise headsets.

Still trying to fulfil the consumer dream

The main message for our report on Displays and Optics for AR & VR 2020 is that the AR market has been mostly a professional-based market, as performance, cost and form factor are hard to balance. Seeing Magic Leap abandoning the consumer market, or Microsoft never really mentioning it, we stand by our analysis. For the consumer market to thrive, it is about more than just the hardware and providing a high-quality image in something that looks like a regular pair of glasses. If the end-result simply consists of putting a smartwatch screen in front of the eye, this is probably not compelling enough. Where is the consumer use-case?

What we have been shown at the CES in terms of use case is the Lenovo example. Lenovo explained that its ThinkReality A3 smart glasses could empower organizations by offering everything from customized virtual monitors to AR-enabled training procedures. This is interesting and it rides the wave of teleworking, with the Covid-19 related lockdowns all over the world. Yet this is not the killer-app that will help improve consumer adoption. Much like VR, there is a need for real disruption in the use case.

Lenovo-thinkreality-3-headset
ThinkReality A3 smart glasses. Courtesy of Lenovo

A short word about VR

VR has not really crossed the chasm from the niche video game player “prosumer” market and the enterprise market towards the consumer market in general as Mark Zuckerberg had dreamt of when Facebook bought Oculus in 2014. Several things come to mind when we try to explain this. One is the lack of killer apps, as we fear could happen for AR. Another is comfort of use.

Today, most if not all VR headsets are bulky and quite heavy on the head, if one wants to be able to have a high enough performance level. There have been discussions about using microdisplays to help reduce the size and weight of VR headsets. However, this required new work on optical lenses not to sacrifice too much field of view (FOV). Last year, Panasonic announced a steampunk-designed VR headset, using OLED-on-silicon, a specific microdisplay technology developed by a few players around the world including BOE, eMagin and MicroOLED among others. Panasonic came to CES 2021 with a slightly tweaked design, using pancake lenses to ensure a proper FOV, and OLED-on-silicon microdisplays at a 2560×2560 resolution manufactured by Kopin.

VR glasses. Courtesy of Panasonic

This will allow for a more comfortable form factor but again, what is going to be the added cost of these microdisplays on silicon compared to regular OLED displays on glass? Or the pancake lens choice? If the answers are right, this could help cross the chasm and go beyond current markets.

Mixing VR with AR?

A trend that seems to have picked up at CES 2021 is video-see-through VR headsets. They provide some kind of AR experience, mixing all realities, virtual and augmented, by making the user see the exterior in her VR headset through image sensors. We are quite skeptical about these as they don’t meet expectations for bulkiness, weight, and so on. They add the complexity of imaging and computing lag. How can designers make sure that the motion-to-photon conversion is fast enough? In an era where people are looking for standalone untethered headsets, adding computing to drain the battery even more is maybe not the best choice either. We are also still to find out whether this approach is only for the enterprise market, yet again.

CREAL’s light-field AR. Courtesy of CREAL

In a VR-like environment, another issue the eye fatigue will remain because of the vergence accommodation conflict. In the enterprise market, wearing such a headset for hours could be difficult. Can the future be in 3D display technologies instead, as CREAL showed during CES?

It has been a slow CES for AR and VR in our opinion. But CES, especially a virtual one, is maybe not the best place to have big announcements for these applications. Those who can make them steal the spotlight, as Vuzix and JBD did this year.

But who today can say she remembers the AR glasses showcased by Samsung in 2020?

About the author

As a Technology & Market Analyst, Displays, Zine Bouhamri, PhD is a member of the Photonics, Sensing & Display division at Yole Développement (Yole).
Zine manages the day to day production of technology & market reports, as well as custom consulting projects. He is also deeply involved in the business development of the Displays unit activities at Yole.
Previously, Zine was in charge of numerous R&D programs at Aledia. During more than three years, he developed strong technical expertise as well as a detailed understanding of the display industry.
Zine is author and co-author of several papers and patents.
Zine Bouhamri holds an Electronics Engineering Degree from the National Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble (France), one from the Politecnico di Torino (Italy), and a Ph.D. in RF & Optoelectronics from Grenoble University (France).

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