Wednesday, 20 January 2016 23:30

Smart glasses microdisplays enabling the AR-VR revolution


2016 is expected to be the year of VR or virtual reality, if the buzz of CES is anything to go by, according to a top research company.

According to research and analysis firm IDTechEx and its Principal Analyst, Dr Harry Zervos, virtual reality was one of the toasts of CES 2016, thanks to ‘much anticipated VR headset launches, [the] announcement of investment in enabling technologies, and developments [in the world of] optimised [VR, AR and smartglasses] components.’

IDTechEx Research has issued a report on the topic of smartglasses dubbed ‘AR & VR Smartglasses and Functional Contact Lenses 2016-2026’, which ‘discusses the growth expected in the space for VR headsets, which the report finds are expected to already be shipping in volumes of over 10,000,000 units by 2019.’

Dr Zervos penned an article following up on the excitement around eye-worn computing, which discusses LCD, LED, and OLED microdisplay technologies, which I’m reprinting here for you.

The article below notes that these microdisplay technologies ‘will compete for integration into smartglasses – augmented reality as well as virtual reality ones - a market that is expected to experience significant growth with VR products leading the charge.’

Microdisplay technology options: LCDs

Microdisplays, initially developed for large screen projectors found a perfectly matching application in head mounted displays. Dr Zervos explains that when Google Glass launched in 2013, it integrated a reflective, near-eye Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) display based on an LCoS chip from Himax Display.

The good doctor’s explanations continue, noting that ‘there are several suppliers of liquid crystal microdisplays that are currently available and have been integrated in different headsets.

Kopin’s transmissive LCD on single crystal silicon transistors has been utilised in smartglasses from Vuzix and Recon, as well as in the company’s own brand headset, the Solos.

Devices based on ferroelectric liquid crystals (FLCoS for short), having made a wide impact on applications as diverse as optical correlation and holographic projection, are also of interest here, as they are inherently faster switching than other liquid crystals.’

Kopin demonstrated a prototype of its Solos smartglasses at CES 2016, with a built-in 4-mm module Pupil, hidden behind the rim and practically invisible from the outside. Source: Kopin

Microdisplay technology options: OLED microdisplays

Then Dr Zervos explains OLED micro displays.

Non-emissive systems, like the LCoS described above, require an external light source with light always incident on every pixel, irrespective of whether said pixel is on or off, an undesirable trait for any portable application where battery life is paramount.

Emissive types of displays rectify that problem and can be more energy efficient, one of the main reasons there is a significant interest in micro-OLED displays. Along with higher contrast, faster response time and a wider operating temperature range, µ-OLEDs have been used in prototypes such as the smartglasses from Atheer Labs, with several companies developing products worldwide (e.g. eMagin, Yunnan OLiGHTECK, MICROOLED).

Unfortunately, says Dr Zervos, ‘current generations of µ-OLEDs are limited in brightness and experience short device life-times when run in high brightness conditions. As a result, there is significant research and development effort in making brighter, longer-lifetime OLEDs, with prototypes that use direct colour emission rather than RGB colour filter arrays showing significant promise in that respect.’

Microdisplay technology options: LED microdisplays

Next up, Dr Zervos talks about Micro-LED microdisplays. Micro-LEDs, also an emissive display technology that benefits from reduced power consumption, have been demonstrated to operate efficiently at higher brightness than that of an OLED display and in that respect can deliver an emissive, high brightness solution.

The drawback of LEDs is that they are inherently monochrome - the phosphors typically used in converting colour in LEDs do not scale well to small size - which leads to a requirement for more complicated device architectures and it is not yet clear how scalable these can be.

Microdisplay technology comparison of key metrics. (Source: IDTechEx report 'AR & VR Smartglasses and Functional Contact Lenses 2016-2026')

It all concludes below, please read on!

Which will be the winning technology?

In the short to mid-term, Dr Zervos says ‘the two major competing technologies are the two more mature ones; OLED and LCoS microdisplays.’

Other than the liquid crystal displays already in products, eMagin has just signed a non-exclusive agreement to supply its OLED microdisplay technology to an undisclosed client, with a $1 million licensing fee as a down-payment, while other headset developers are testing OLED displays and their performance in their devices.

Assuming that micro-LED technologies overcome challenges relating to manufacturing complexity and scalability we will potentially see them carving up market share in the future. VerLASE Technologies might be simplifying micro-LED structures (but also micro OLED structures too) with its revolutionary ‘Chromover™’ wavelength conversion technology.

For more detailed information on suppliers, microdisplay technology comparisons and benchmarking, profiles of the most significant players and market forecasts in the space for AR and VR smartglasses, Dr Zervos and IDTechEx hope you’ll read their aforementioned new report 'AR & VR Smartglasses and Functional Contact Lenses 2016-2026', which at always is on sale to relevant parties at relevant prices.

More information is here


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.



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