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Flat and thin waveguides are certainly impressive optical devices. It is almost magical how you can put light into what looks a lot like thin plates of glass and an small image will go on one side and then with total internal reflection (TIR) inside the glass, the image comes out in a different place. They are coveted by R&D people for their scientific sophistication and loved by Industrial Designers because they look so much like ordinary glass.
But there is a “dark side” to waveguides, at least every one that I have seen. To made them work, the light follows a torturous path and often has to be bent at about 45 degrees to couple into the waveguide and then by roughly 45 degrees to couple out in addition to rattling of the two surfaces while it TIRs. The image is just never the same quality when it goes through all this torture. Some of the light does not make all the turns and bends correctly and it come out in the wrong places which degrade the image quality. A major effect I have seen in every diffractive/holographic waveguid is I have come to call “waveguide glow.”
Part of the problem is that when you bend light either by refraction or using diffraction or holograms, the various colors of light bend slightly differently based on wavelength. The diffraction/holograms are tuned for each color but invariably they have some effect on the other color; this is particularly problem is if the colors don’t have a narrow spectrum that is exactly match by the waveguide. Even microscopic defects cause some light to follow the wrong path and invariably a grating/hologram meant to bend say green, will also affect the direction of say blue. Worse yet, some of the light gets scattered, and causes the waveguide glow.
To the right is a still frame from a “Through the lens” video” taken through the a Hololens headset. Note, this is actually through the optics and NOT the video feed that Microsoft and most other people show. What you should notice is a violet colored “glow” beneath the white circle. There is usually also a tendency to have a glow or halo around any high contrast object/text, but it is most noticeable when there is a large bright area.
For these waveguides to work at all, they require very high quality manufacturing which tends to make them expensive. I have heard several reports that Hololens has very low yields of their waveguide.
I haven’t, nor have most people that have visited Magic Leap (ML), seen though ML’s waveguide. What ML leap shows most if not all their visitors are prototype systems that use non-waveguide optics has I discussed last time. Maybe ML has solved all the problems with waveguides, if they have, they will be the first.
I have nothing personally against waveguides. They are marvels of optical science and require very intelligent people to make them and very high precision manufacturing to make. It is just that they always seem to hurt image quality and they tend to be expensive.
Microsoft acquired their waveguide technology from Nokia. It looks almost like they found this great bit of technology that Nokia had developed and decided to build a product around it. But then when you look at Hololens (left) there is this the shield to protect the lenses (often tinted but I picked a clear shield so you could see the waveguides). On top of this there is all the other electronic and frame to mount it on the user’s head.
The space savings from the using waveguides over much simpler flat combiner is a drop in the bucket.
I’m picking Osterhout Design Group’s for comparison below because because they demonstrate a simpler, more flexible, and better image quality alternative to using a waveguide. I think it makes a point. Most probably have not heard of them, but I have know of them for about 8 or 9 years (I have no relationship with them at this time). They have done mostly military headsets in the past and burst onto the public scene when Microsoft paid them about $150 million dollars for a license to their I.P. Beyond this they just raised another $58 million from V.C.’s. Still this is chump change compared to what Hololens and Magic Leap are spending.
Below is the ODG R7 LCOS based glasses (with the one of the protective covers removed). Note, the very simple flat combiner. It is extremely low tech and much lower cost compared to the Hololens waveguide. To be fair, the R7 does not have as much in the way of sensors and processing as the as Hololens.
The point here is that by the time you put the shield on the Hololens what difference does having a flat waveguide make to the overall size? Worse yet, the image quality from the simple combiner is much better.
Next, below is ODG’s next generation Horizon glasses that use a 1080p Micro-OLED display. It appears to have somewhat larger combiner (I can’t tell if it is flat or slightly curved from the available pictures of it) to support the wider FOV and a larger outer cover, but pretty much the same design. The remarkable thing is that they can use the a similar optical design with the OLEDs and the whole thing is about the same size where as the Hololens waveguide won’t work at all with OLEDs due broad bandwidth colors OLEDs generate.
ODG put up a short video clip through their optics of the Micro-OLED based Horizon (they don’t come out and say that it is, but the frame is from the Horizon and the image motion artifacts are from an OLED). The image quality appears to be (you can’t be too quantitative from a YouTube video) much better than anything I have seen from waveguide optics. There is not of the “waveguide glow”.
They even were willing to show text image with both clear and white backgrounds that looks reasonably good (see below). It looks more like a monitor image except for the fact that is translucent. This is the hard content display because you know what it is supposed to look like so you know when something is wrong. Also, that large white area would glow like mad on any waveguide optics I have seen.
The clear text on white background is a little hard to read at small size because it is translucent, but that is a fundamental issue will all see-though displays. The “black” is what ever is in the background and the “white” is the combination of the light from the image and the real world background. See through displays are never going as good as an opaque displays in this regards.
It looks to me like Hololens and Magic Leap both started with a waveguide display as a given and then built everything else around it. They overlooked that they were building a system. Additionally, they needed get it in many developers hands as soon as possible to work out the myriad of other sensor, software, and human factors issues. The waveguide became a bottleneck, and from what I can see from Hololens was an unnecessary burden. As my fellow TI Fellow Gene Frantz and I used to say when we where on TI’s patent committeed, “it is often the great new invention that causes the product to fail.”
I (and few/nobody outside of Magic Leap) has seen an image through ML’s production combiner, maybe they will be the first to make one that looks as good as simpler combiner solution (I tend to doubt it, but it not impossible). But what has leaked out is that they have had problems getting systems to their own internal developers. According the Business Insider’s Oct. 24th article (with my added highlighting):
“Court filings reveal new secrets about the company, including a west coast software team in disarray, insufficient hardware for testing, and a secret skunkworks team devoted to getting patents and designing new prototypes — before its first product has even hit the market.”
From what I can tell of what Magic Leap is trying to do, namely focus planes to support vergence/accommodation, they could have achieved this faster with more conventional optics. It might not have been as sleek or “magical” as the final product, but it would have done the job, shown the advantage (assuming it is compelling) and got their internal developers up and running sooner.
It is even more obvious for Hololens. Using a simple combiner would have added trivially to the the design size while reducing the cost and getting the the SDK’s in more developer’s hands sooner.
It looks to me that both Hololens and likely Magic Leap put too much emphasis on the using waveguides which had a domino effect in other decisions rather than making a holistic system decision. The way I see it:
Hololens and Magic Leap appear to be banking on getting waveguides into volume production in order to solve all the image quality and cost problems with them. But it will depend on a lot of factors, some of which are not in their control, namely, how hard it is to make them well and at a price that people can afford. Even if they solve all the issues with waveguides, it is only a small piece of their puzzle.
Right now ODG seems to be taking more the of the original Apple/Wozniak approach; they are finding elegance in a simpler design. I still have issues with what they are doing, but in the area of combining the light and image quality, they seem to be way ahead.