From Collabs to Laser Modules—Efforts to Improve AR/VR Technology Keep on Rolling In
Trying to keep the momentum building for AR/VR technology, Google targets a micro-LED company, Microsoft and Qualcomm teaming up, and ams OSRAM has a new laser module prototype.
The first quarter of 2022 brought some exciting developments to the augmented reality (AR) scene with new partnerships, buyouts, and returning players ready to take another stab at the emerging technology.
The past couple of years of advancements in computational power, motion sensors, and computer graphics have allowed engineers to develop more immersive mixed reality technologies. Technology such as AR and VR (virtual reality) continue to blur the line between the real world and the digital one.
Basic comparison between AR, VR, and mixed reality. Image used courtesy of Ruby Garage
Although these two technologies share some similarities, there are some distinct differences:
- AR uses translucent displays such as eyeglass lenses or small laser projectors behind the lens to overlay images on top of the user’s existing environment.
- VR goes a step further and uses traditional displays to block out the user’s environment and replace it with a completely new computer-generated one.
The most popular technologies that enable mixed reality are known as AR glasses and VR headsets and often feature integrated sensors and cameras for motion control, speakers for sound, and the option to use other peripheral input devices for controlling different aspects of the simulation itself.
With these concepts in mind, this article focuses on three new augmented reality developments, one acquisition of an AR hardware company from Google, an AR tech collaboration between Microsoft and Qualcomm, and a new AR optical projection device from ams OSRAM.
Google Buys Micro-LED Company—Raxium
This California-based startup has been working on micron and sub-micron scale light-emitting diodes, focusing on ultra-high-density displays for AR and VR implementation for the past five years.
Besides pixels three hundred times smaller than what we have today, Raxium also promises LEDs that are one thousand times brighter and use fifty percent less energy than traditional display LED technology. This technology claims to be used in an all-new class of displays intending to fuel future display technologies from research and development to high volume manufacturing.
For Google, which has experience in the mixed reality space, acquiring this technology might be essential to set themselves apart in the already densely populated XR (VR and AR) market.
Currently, the company hasn’t announced any new AR or VR projects. However, the only information about its future ventures and potential uses of Raxium’s LED technology comes from some rumors and speculations about a code-named ‘Project Iris’ that’s supposedly being developed for release sometime in 2024.
Microsoft and Qualcomm Aim for AR Microprocessor
Another AR development from earlier this year is the recent Microsoft partnership with Qualcomm, one of the largest mobile processor manufacturers famous for their Snapdragon chips. This team-up hopes to develop a new augmented reality microprocessor for lightweight and energy-efficient AR glasses.
In the past, both companies have worked together on several different products, most notably the Microsoft HoloLens 2, which was powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 850 chip, making this collaboration a natural progression between these companies toward developing next-generation XR products.
Qualcomm’s spatial computing operation is not limited to Microsoft. Last year, it announced a standalone XR platform called Spaces XR. Additionally, it has previously worked with other companies on mixed reality products such as Meta’s Oculus Quest 2, powered by the Snapdragon XR2 chip.
Although this new chip is currently being developed to fit Microsoft’s products, both Qualcomm and Microsoft’s existing Mesh AR platforms are planned to be integrated with the processor.
They state that the designers will do this by using software from both companies focusing on a much larger goal of cross-connecting between different glasses and headsets and utilizing other devices such as smartphones and tablets as secondary displays.
OSRAM's Vegalas RGB Laser Module
The final announcement in this roundup is from an Austrian optical sensor company, ams OSRAM. OSRAM has recently announced a new laser emitter module prototype called Vegalas for use in light projection in AR systems at the beginning of the year.
OSRAM's Vegalas prototype module. Image used courtesy of ams OSRAM
This optical element claims to be designed to reduce the size of AR glasses to make future generation devices as fashionable as traditional sunglasses and spectacles.
While some companies like Microsoft are currently aiming toward an enterprise customer base due to the size, complexity, and, most importantly, price of the devices themselves, OSRAM has a different goal. OSRAM hopes to enable companies to deliver mass consumer-friendly AR that can seamlessly fit into any standard glasses frame on the market.
The company plans to achieve this by shrinking its optical component into a footprint of 4.6 by 7 millimeters and a height of 1.2 millimeters combining red, green, and blue wavelength lasers into a surface-mount package ready to be embedded into an AR device.
The Vegalas module, although still a proof of concept, is promising to cut the size of AR light engines down by half. A final version is set to begin with volume production at the beginning of next year; however, samples of the current one are available for testing in limited quantities, according to ams OSRAM.
Heading Towards the Future of AR
Though these recent collaborations between companies, from semiconductor manufacturers to software developers, and even small startups, might have genius tech, often they don't have enough resources to develop the technology fully on their own.
Despite the limitations, they hope to prove that, though the technology has had a rocky start with all of the mixed reality failures from the past decade, this technology has a lot of prospects for the future.
Although AR technology still faces some challenges, it has a lot of potential for enabling more immersive experiences in education and entertainment. That specific application could improve remote training and problem solving and enable precise and detailed modeling and design.
Thanks to the engineers who aim to make AR devices as unassuming as regular glasses and powerful enough to blend a simulation into reality more naturally, this technology is turning from fad to mainstream. Hopefully, we will see it become as prevalent as everybody's smartphones and laptops in the next couple of decades.