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The market research and analysis firm Lux Research projects that it will take five to seven years for consumer augmented-reality (AR) devices—particularly the long-anticipated “smart glasses”—to transition to the mass market. That development, the company writes in “The Hardware and Materials Innovations Enabling Consumer Augmented Reality,” presupposes “significant innovations” in the optics and photonics underlying these devices, to simultaneously drive down device size and weight and improve optical performance.
Enterprise versus consumer uses
The Lux study notes that the “basic components for functional and immersive AR headwear” are already available. Some companies, such as Microsoft and Lenovo, are working hard to roll these technologies into AR devices geared to enterprise use cases in productivity enhancement, design and decision support and even customer experiences. But such enterprise devices are bulky and heavy; the Microsoft HoloLens 2, for instance, weighs in at more than half a kilogram. And enterprise headsets can cost upwards of US$2,000 apiece.
For consumer AR to take off, devices will need to be a lot lighter, both literally and in their impact on the wallet. They will also need to address numerous ongoing issues in AR development, such as mitigating vergence–accommodation conflict, shortening latency times, heat and contrast management and adequate field of view (see “Visual Perception in AR/VR,” OPN, April 2021).
Optics, light engines and sensors
Getting to ubiquitous “smart glasses” that bring immersive AR to the masses will, the Lux report observes, take significant work to pack the capabilities currently limited to enterprise-scale AR headsets into something that will fit comfortably on a consumer’s nose. Particularly important, the firm says, will be materials and hardware technology development in three optical areas: optical components, “light engines” and sensors.
Among optical components, the key areas for development, according to the Lux report, will be waveguides, where increasing field-of-view will be a development priority, and holographic optical elements (HOEs), which the company says may serve as a “stopgap” technology while waveguides continue to mature.
In the area of light engines, Lux expects that microLEDs and OLEDs will have the fastest adoption in the near term. But it believes that systems involving laser sources offer a superior experience and will likely come to the fore in consumer applications as miniaturization efforts bear fruit—likely not until 2026 or later.
Finally, cameras and sensors will, Lux believes, see ongoing improvements both in device size and manufacturing costs. Some of the improvements could be driven by the use of technologies, such as quantum dots for IR sensing and ultrathin metalenses, that are only now transitioning from the lab to the commercial space.
Three consumer AR stages
Putting all of this together, the Lux report envisions that the transition from enterprise to consumer AR will play out in three waves of consumer devices. The earliest style to gain traction with consumers, possibly in the next two to three years, could be video pass-through devices. These would be virtual-reality headsets that provide a simulacrum of AR by displaying video of the real world on an OLED display, with AR overlays on top of the video display. Applications for such devices, Lux says, will “be limited to indoors and focus on entertainment.”
Actual “smart glasses” in a smaller form factor could start to see consumer adoption in two to five years, in Lux’s view, and will expand AR into outdoor spaces. These early glasses will probably offer relatively limited functions, such as notifications and navigation assistance (still tied to smartphone connectivity), overlaid on the real world seen through clear lenses.
Finally, as a result of current research in optical AR components, the company sees a third wave of “fully immersive and slick AR glasses”—which seamlessly blend the virtual and real worlds—coming on the scene in five to seven years. The period between now and then, Lux writes, offers “substantial opportunities for materials and hardware developers, while the world afterward will present unlimited virtual opportunities for development.”