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This article is going to be a quick one to get ahead of breaking news. WaveOptics is in the process of announcing a strategic supplier relationship with Jade Bird Display (JBD). As this is about to be announced, this article is a bit rushed and may have more than the usual number of typos. It was already going to be a late-night putting this news into context.
[Update] First, in the short time after this article was posted, WaveOptics published their announcement. Also, I’m planning on doing a follow up article on the technical aspects including some pros and cons.
WaveOptics is announcing a strategic partnership with JBD for their 0.13″ VGA (640×480 pixel) green-only MicroLED microdisplay. To some degree, this simply makes it official (more on the precursors in a bit). WaveOptics has named the associated development kit “Leopard.” The development kit version is going to support 27-degrees FOV, monocular (right eye only available), and with (only) 4-bits (16-shades) of green. It is battery powered and free of cables.
Quoting from WaveOptics:
Leopard uses the Katana waveguide platform which was launched at CES 2020. It is the thinnest and lightest waveguide available: only 1.15mm thick, weighing just 7 grams. It combines with Loki, the WaveOptics designed projector (incorporating JBD’s uLED panel) weighing just 0.6 grams and volume 760mm3, which fits into the housing of the glasses for ease of assembly and style. The 0.13” VGA MicroLED display from JBD has an active area of only 2.64 mm x 2.02 mm, capable of achieving brightness of over 4 million nits. This enables the ultra-efficient, super bright and small form factor design of the Loki.
So that is the “news.” For the rest of this article, I want to put this announcement into some context.
In May 2021, Snap bought WaveOptics. At the time, it was stated that WaveOptics would still be supporting other customers. Still, it has to make customers of WaveOptics a bit suspicious. From my first-hand experience with 20 years (1977-1998) at Texas Instruments, I know that it is tricky to be both a component supplier and an end-equipment company.
As discussed later, Facebook bought out the rights to all of Plessey’s MicroLEDs for use in Augmented Reality (AR). It turns out WaveOptics had previously announced they were working with Plessey, and thus they got cut out by the Facebook deal with Plessey. AR is a small world, and MicroLED based AR is a tiny island in that small world.
Making things confusing, Facebook did not buy the whole Plessey Semiconductor, but rather they bought exclusive rights to all MicroLEDs used in AR. On the other hand, Snap bought the whole of WaveOptics but is not requiring them to work exclusively with just Snap. Thus, WaveOptics is still looking for customers, whereas Plessey is not.
There is speculation in the AR industry that Facebook’s Plessy buyout deal may have been a major influence on Snap’s decision to buy WaveOptics. The theory goes that Snap was justifiably afraid that they could get far into an AR glasses design only to have WaveOptics controlled by someone else. Even if there were still comparable waveguides available from other companies, the cost of switching would be high if they had to change waveguides as even Waveguides with similar capabilities and not interchangeable.
It should be noted that the current Snap development prototype is not using MicroLEDs but rather a TI DLP microdisplay. It is also unlikely that Snap would be using MicroLEDs anytime soon. The point here is that the AR business climate might have influenced Snap.
It is not like WaveOptics working with JBD was a deep secret. They have been publicly working together since at least CES 2020. The news is more about the specifics of what will be available.
At CES 2020, JDB was demonstrated their 720p MicroLED with WaveOptics’ waveguide. Below are some pictures of that demonstration. I also took some direct micro-photographs of the JBD’s MicroLEDs. Note, these devices were still pre-production units.
On March 20, 2021, Christopher Grayson at Giganti.co reported on Luxexcel and WaveOptics deal that WaveOptics was using a “green only” display with a very small optical engine. The article showed the same waveguide, and the light engine showed the WaveOptics and JBD announcement.
Luxexcel has technology for printing plastic optics encasing waveguides while leaving an air gap so the waveguides (WaveOptics and others, including Lumus) will still work. At the SPIE AR/VR/MR 2021 (virtual) Conference, Luxexcel gave a video presentation (behind paywall) explaining the technology.
In the article, Grayson speculated that the “green only” display might mean using a MicroLED. Grayson guessed (incorrectly) that might be a hold-over from a prior arrangement with Plessey before the Facebook and Pless deal. The guess by Grayson was not unfounded as WaveOptics and Plessy had announced a strategic partnership in February 2020.
The Giganti.co article has a lot of good information on the state of MicroLEDs and Waveguides, and I would highly recommend reading it for more information.
Vuzix announced back in January 2021 that they would be using the same 0.13″ MicroLED JBD microdisplay. This was also covered in more detail in the Giganti.co article.
Jade Bird Display (JBD) announced on October 12, 2020, that they are about to go into the production of their 0.13″, 640×480 pixel single color (red, green, or blue) MicroLED microdisplays. They were the first MicroLED company selling samples, and now they appear to be the first to go to production. The display has 4-micron pixels with a 0.13-inch diagonal.
To increase the brightness (nits = candelas/meter-squared), JBD integrates a micro-lens over each (single color) pixel, as illustrated below.
JBD showed using modules with color X-cubes to combine individual red, green, and blue devices to provide full color at more than 2 million nits.
Interestingly Vuzix put out a video in October 2020 which hinted at using three stacked waveguides to combine three separate MicroLEDs. But then, at CES 2021 in January Video, Vuzix had a 3-D drawing of a waveguide using an X-Cube for color (see below).
The earlier October 2020 concept suggests using something similar to Facebook’s patent application 2019/0227318 (right) for combining three MicroLEDs with three waveguides. But then the later video suggests using an X-Cube color combiner. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages.
As a side note, in May 2021, Vuzix announced that they are also be selling red, green, and blue display engines using the JBD 0.13″ MicroLED. The Vuzix also showed some non-waveguide applications for the projector in July 2021 video.
Facebook has been investing in MicroLEDs for some time having bought InfiniLED in 2016. On April 2020 Facebook signed an “exclusive” deal with Plessey for all their MicroLEDs to be used in AR/MR.
Both WaveOptics in 2020 and Vuzix back in 2019 had announced MicroLED relationships with Plessey. The first sign that all was not well with Vuzix and Plessey happened at CES 2020. Vuzix showed privately green MicroLED prototype, but they would not say who’s display they were using despite the prior Plessey announcement. I figured it must be JBD as otherwise Vuzix would have said who they were using Plessey.
As first reported by The Information on March 30, 2020, “Facebook Strikes Deal for AR Displays, Squeezing Out Apple” (behind paywall), Plessey has agreed to sell MicroLEDs for AR applications to Facebook exclusively. While the article is behind a paywall, Plessey’s news release confirms the exclusive arrangement with Plessey. The “Squeezing Out of Apple” title of The Information’s article is over-sensationalized (and criticized in the comments of their report) in that they only say that “Apple also looked at buying Plessey.”
According to The Information, Facebook didn’t buy out Plessey outright, as “that would likely have brought intense regulatory scrutiny.” The new release on the Plessey website is even more ambiguous and only says, “We have decided to work with Facebook to help achieve their vision of the next computing platform centred around people.” Subsequent investigation suggests that the deal is closer to a buyout.
Plessey’s news release included a “Dear John” note to their past partners and potential customers. Quoting part of the statement:
“In working with Facebook, we are charting an exciting path forward for Plessey, and as we move into the next phase, we want to extend a sincere thank you to all the partners and customers who’ve been such a key part of our journey to date.”
It has such an “it’s not you, it’s me” feel to it 😊.
Not to be critical of Plessey; they did what they felt was in their business’s best interest. It shows the fragility of the AR business ecosystem. As mentioned earlier, buyout actions by Facebook, Apple, and others likely at least influenced Snap to buy WaveOptics.
Overall, this blog does technical and (some) business analysis rather than keeping up with the news, although occasionally, I will jump on a news story. The website MicroLED-Info is focused on MicroLED news and keeps track of the companies involved in making MicroLEDs (and it is free). The market research company, Yole Development, focuses on MicroLED with their (paid) market reports, but they also have free videos and (redacted) presentations online. Both MicroLED-info and Yole trace “MicroLEDs” of all sizes and not just microdisplays used in AR.
Display devices and optics in AR are pushing up against physics, and there will be some talk about collimation, etendue, and nits. If you are not versed in optics, it might be helpful to refer to an article I wrote about these terms.