AR Optics: IDTechEx Explores Insights from IDTechEx at CES 2024

BOSTON, Feb. 13, 2024 /PRNewswire/ -- Apple's Vision Pro has recently grabbed all the headlines in the spatial computing world, following years of hype and rumors of Apple bringing a headset to market. The Vision Pro is thought to be merely the opening salvo of the tech giant's strategy, with see-through augmented reality (AR) devices expected to be the endgame. Compared to the camera passthrough used in headsets like the Vision Pro and Meta's Quest 3, this would vastly improve the view of the real world while helping to make devices much more like normal glasses – not to mention aiding social acceptability by making the wearer's eyes visible to those around them.

As outlined in IDTechEx's report, "Optics for Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality 2024-2034: Technologies, Players and Markets", the development of optical combiners, specialized optical components which project virtual information on top of the real world, is a key hurdle holding back see-through AR from primetime. However, startling progress is being made to solve this, with CES 2024 giving a great overview of recent developments in AR optics and spatial computing overall.

Contrasting approaches to AR

The two biggest AR headset announcements at this year's CES took very different approaches. TCL's upcoming RayNeo X2 Lite headset fell under the banner of "lite AR". These devices are lightweight with a glasses form factor, focusing on being minimally intrusive while displaying simple contextual information like directions or sports statistics to the wearer. In contrast, XReal's Air 2 Ultra is more of a spiritual successor to the HoloLens, focusing on adding emphasis on mixed reality features like spatial localization and mapping, and hand tracking to XReal's device lineup. While no heavyweight at 80g, it is not designed to be worn as an accessory in the same vein as "lite AR" devices.

AR optics mentioned in this article. L-R: Mojie’s resin waveguide with integrated prescription correction, Optiark’s upcoming resin binocular 2D waveguide, LetinAR’s newest FrontiAR™ Pro optics. Source: IDTechEx – Images taken by IDTechEx at CES 2024.

Polymer waveguides showed impressive performance

Optics for lite AR were a fruitful space for innovation at this year's CES. Chinese player Mojie, also known as Meta-Bounds, supplies Oppo its AR optics. It showed IDTechEx its newest resin surface relief diffractive waveguides at the event. Compared to the optical glass substrates more commonly used in AR waveguides, polymers can increase durability while reducing weight due to their lower density and potential elimination of the requirement for cover glass. They could also cut the cost of these specialized optical components. A major downside is that their lower refractive index limits the field of view of the waveguide, but this is not an issue for lite AR. Critically, Mojie's waveguides can be bonded directly to ophthalmic lenses, meaning AR glasses can become viable prescription eyewear without clunky solutions like prescription inserts.

Shenzhen-based Optiark's pre-production LHASA-5 resin waveguides could make lite AR even lighter: one waveguide, weighing only 4g, uses a single display to project images to both eyes. This could solve the comfort issues some face while wearing glasses with a monocular display without adding significant weight or cost. Optiark said it expects the image quality to surpass others already producing resin waveguides: this could be due to the multi-level diffraction gratings it employs, or it may be able to achieve higher new levels of surface flatness than are typical in polymer AR optics.

A new challenger to birdbath optics

Innovation was not limited to the lite AR space, with Korean player LetinAR's latest optics looking like strong competitors to the birdbath optics used in lower-cost, wide field-of-view AR devices like those from XReal. This special class of reflective waveguide uses the proprietary PinTILT™ architecture, which allows a relatively affordable and high-resolution micro-OLED display to be used, just like with birdbath optics but unlike with most other waveguides. Although the design makes them thicker than other waveguides, it also allows these injection-molded plastic optics to have a wide FoV, making them suitable for immersive applications. Crucially, the wearer's view of the real world and the view of the user's eyes are vastly better than with birdbath optics. LetinAR's optics are close to mass production readiness and were shown at CES in devices from Jorjin, Sharp, and Nimo.

Optics are taking AR headsets close to primetime readiness

Compared to previous years, AR felt significantly closer to mass-market viability at this year's CES, with the contribution of optics being hard to understate here. Improved optical designs, in conjunction with the wider availability of emerging display technologies like micro-LED, are shrinking AR glasses down, with more efficient optical systems reducing demands on batteries and thermal management systems. Vuzix's Z100 lite AR glasses, announced at CES, weigh less than many prescription glasses and quote a battery life of over 48 hours, with a Jade Bird Display micro-LED screen and advancement in waveguide design being key here. More immersive devices might not be quite so unobtrusive, but XReal's Air 2 Ultra offers true MR features at $2,800 cheaper than the Vision Pro (although you will need to pair them with a high-end smartphone). Overall, the future for AR looks bright.

Further insight

The stories presented here provide only a small portion of IDTechEx's insights from CES 2024, which are available to their subscribers, amongst much more timely information on emerging technologies on their portal. Events like CES help shape IDTechEx's coverage of spatial computing with its recent reports, "Optics for Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality 2024-2034: Technologies, Players and Markets" and "Displays for Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality 2024-2034: Forecasts, Technologies, Markets", giving comprehensive intelligence including 10 year granular adoption forecasts into these two critical technology markets.

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