Exclusive: Snap Buying Compound Photonics (LCOS and MicroLED)

Introduction

On May 21, 2021, this blog broke the news that Snap was going to use WaveOptics, and just two hours later, news broke that Snap had bought WaveOptics. In that article, I speculated that WaveOptics was moving toward using LCOS and speculated that Snap’s future products would likely be using LCOS. Later, it was revealed that Snap’s prototypes used Texas Instrument’s DLP display in their first prototype.

I have multiple sources confirming that Snap has bought LCOS maker,Compound Photonics. This new information would seem to confirm that Snap is indeed planning on using LCOS in their production AR glasses.

This news comes on the heals of Meta of my December 21, 2021 exclusive that Meta bought imagine Optix. It seems that all the big companies are on a shopping spree to (pardon the pun) snap up all companies with technology that they will need or to deny access to that technology by their competitors.

Compound Photonics (Brief LCOS History)

Compound Photonics (CP) has was founded in 2007 and bought the assets of LCOS maker Syntax-Brillian (Syntax had bought Brillian in 2005). CP was working on a front projector technology that used small LCOS devices to optically address “Compound Photonics” material to (loosely speaking) amplify the light, thus the name Compound Photonics.

Brillian, then part of Three-Five, had earlier bought the assets early LCOS headset device maker Colorado Microdisplays (CMD)/Zight.

The whole projector concept failed, but CP kept making the small LCOS devices originally designed by Colorado Microdisplays. Importantly, Brillian developed a fairly advanced manufacturing line for assembling LCOS devices.

CP kept developing more advanced and smaller pixel LCOS devices ever, but while I kept hearing good things about their LCOS prototype devices, they never seemed to make it into finished products. The closest I ever saw them get was into the very impressive 2K by 2K Lumus Maximum prototype cover on June 21, 2021, in Lumus Maximus 2K x 2K Per Eye, >3000 Nits, 50° FOV with Through-the-Optics Pictures.

CP Was Working with Plessey on MicroLEDs before Meta/Facebook Bought Out Plessey’s MicroLEDs

CP was working on using their experience in semiconductor backplane technology to develop backplanes that would work for both LCOS and MicroLEDs. They were working with Plessey Semiconductor on a MicroLED device for a considerable time, and the development was announced in Feb. 2020. Then just a month later, Facebook (Meta) bought a license to all of Plessey’s MicroLED production. While Plessey made the LEDs, CP’s assembly process bonded the small LED onto CP’s backplane. This development left CP high and dry for an LED maker for their backplane and MicroLED assembly technology.

While MicroLEDs may have a long-term interest in Snap, I think CP’s LCOS capability drove the acquisition. MicroLEDs for use with waveguides have many years to go before being ready for a consumer-type product.

As I have written before, I think Facebook’s buying out of Plessey’s MicroLED production heavily influenced Snap to buy WaveOptics. A few weeks ago, Meta bought Imagine Optics, and now Snap buys Compound Photonics.

Commentary – Imagine if in 1980 IBM Bought Intel and Microsoft

When companies like Facebook/Meta buy out well-known large companies like Instagram for $1B, many people notice, but still, the government allows these ever-growing monopolistic activities. It is much more discrete and a lot less expensive to buy up core technology companies that the general public does not know yet.

The many billion behemoths have the financial wherewithal to cover almost all the “bets” on future AR technology. If they buy up enough core technologies, they set up what is known as a “picket fence.” They don’t need all the core technologies, but just enough (pickets) that someone else can’t build a product without one of the technologies they own. On the surface, it looks like Snap is buying up companies as a defensive maneuver to keep from being shut out. Regardless, all the other smaller AR developers will get caught in the crossfire as the behemoths fight it out.

Most people today either don’t know or don’t remember that IBM was being sued for antitrust in the early 1980s at the same time as AT&T, which was broken up in 1982. As they say, “shoot a few prisoners, and the rest fall in line.” IBM avoided being broken up, but they were treading very softly in terms of monopolistic practices in the early 1980s as the PC market emerged. People forget how Intel was in serious trouble before the IBM PC, and Microsoft was still a small company. An earlier IBM would have aggressively asserted their patents portfolios against PC-Clones and Apple rather than licensing them. IBM could have easily bought out a struggling Intel and then tiny Microsoft rather than just buying their products.

Imagine the PC and Cell phone markets today if (the old) ATT and IBM had continued to dominate their respective markets. That seems to be the future of AR in a world with extremely lax to nonexistent antitrust.

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Karl Guttag
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11 Comments

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  1. Quick question. Does Meta(formally Facebook)have their own waveguides? I know they have some sort of exclusivity deal with Plessey for smart glasses in the future with their displays, but I’m wondering if Meta have their own in-house waveguides or if they will have to get them from someone else.

    • I don’t know anyone that Meta/Facebook owns who makes waveguides. Making diffractive waveguides in particular, while requiring great expertise to design and advance fabs to make, are not that rare. There are many startups and major companies worldwide and major companies that can make them.

      I’m sure Meta has many people on staff that could design a waveguide. They could then take that design around the world to any of several Fabs. Meta could control the design, which is key as most of these companies, such as Waveoptics, Hololens, and Displexix, are made in contract fabs. If Meta were to do something radically different than diffractive waveguides (which is possible). In that case, they might need to develop their own manufacturing or work with a partner (that they might, in turn, buy out).

      Snap, on the other hand, and purely my speculation, probably didn’t have the expertise in-house to make a design and thus bought Waveoptics rather than risk starting a design only to find that they were bought by, say Meta.

      Lumus’s reflective waveguides give the best image quality and are the most efficient and closer to unique, but there have been some “clones” made in China.

    • I looked at the patent application (not it is an application and not an approved patent) by Vuzix briefly. It seems to do what anyone skilled in this area would know without giving much on how to do it.

      The basic idea is that they want to change the apparent focus distance of the virtual image to be closer. If they do this with a variable lens between the waveguide and the eye, then the real world will be out of focus, so they have also to have to do the opposite compensation with the lens between the waveguide and the real world. The really hard part of how to make the variable focus lenses work and how to exactly correct for the real world is left out.

      I discussed some of the issues with variable focus distance in: https://kguttag.com/2021/10/22/magic-leap-2-pt-2-possible-answers-from-patent-applications/

  2. Great article! Apparently the founders of Compound Photonics, Jonathan Sachs and Jerry Woodall, are now both collaborating with Vuzix according to their recent press release

    • Thanks, this turned up in a couple of places. I don’t know anything about what they are doing other than MicroLEDs is becoming a crowded space. In the same week or so Porotech of Cambridge made a release.

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