Facebook Reality Labs develops near-eye displays

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New near-eye displays from Facebook Reality Labs could point to a future where we barely even notice we’re wearing a VR device

Quick read

➨ Due to be presented at the virtual SIGGRAPH conference in August, researchers at Facebook Reality Labs, led by chief scientist Michael Abrash, have created near-eye displays that use holographic optics and polarisation-based optical folding
➨ The approach, proposed by researchers Andrew Maimone and Junren Wang, could be used to develop future sunglasses-like VR hardware
➨ While only proof-of-concept, Facebook says the thin, flat films used as optics achieve a display thickness of less than 9 mm while supporting a field of view comparable to today’s consumer VR products

The story

The VR research arm of Facebook has developed a new optical architecture that the social media company claims is both significantly more compact than anything it’s previously developed and offers the potential for better visual performance.

Due to be presented at the virtual SIGGRAPH conference in August, researchers at Facebook Reality Labs, led by chief scientist Michael Abrash, have created near-eye displays that use holographic optics and polarisation-based optical folding.

The approach, proposed by researchers Andrew Maimone and Junren Wang, could be used to develop future sunglasses-like VR hardware.

According to Facebook, holographic optics and polarisation-based optical folding help keep the optics as thin as possible while making the most efficient use of space.

Facebook said in a preview of the SIGGRAPH conference presentation: “We anticipate that such lightweight and comfortable form factors may enable extended VR sessions and new use cases, including productivity.”

While only a proof-of-concept research device, Facebook says the thin, flat films used as optics achieve a display thickness of less than 9mm while supporting a field of view comparable to today’s consumer VR products.

The device does away with the simple refractive lens composed of a thick, curved piece of glass or plastic that is common in most VR displays.

It replaces this lens with a holographics optics system that functions in a similar way to holographic images that appear on credit cards, which record the interaction of laser light with objects.

Facebook’s holographic optics are a recording of the interaction of laser light with objects, but the object here is a lens rather than a 3D scene.

The result is a “dramatic reduction in thickness and weight”, according to Facebook, because the holographic optic bends light like a lens but looks like a thin, transparent sticker.

Facebook says the thin, flat films used as optics achieve a display thickness of less than 9 mm
Facebook says the thin, flat films used achieve a display thickness of less than 9 mm

The application of polarisation-based optical folding means light can be controlled to move both forward and backward within the lens, so that the empty space placed between the display panel and the lens to properly focus the image can be traversed multiple times, collapsing it to a fraction of the original volume.

Laser illumination is also used to deliver a much wider gamut of colours to VR displays and progress is made toward scaling resolution to the limit of human vision.

Facebook conceded that while the new displays point toward the future development of lightweight, comfortable and high-performance immersive technology, the work underpinning it is purely research.

Facebook’s research paper does dive into the current limitations of the display architecture and discusses future areas of research that will make the approach more practical.

Although impressive and necessary research, must display technology leaps such as those proposed here be taken for VR to become palatable to workers and consumers alike?

Facebook’s suggestion that ‘productivity’ could become a new use case for VR with displays such as these is a concession that current headsets are better suited to specialisms within enterprise rather than everyday work use.

The current era of spatial computing seems to be one that will rely on a wide range of capable devices designed for both specific and broad use—not so different, of course, from the PC and smartphone ecosystems that we rely on today.

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Main image: The Facebook device proposed in Holographic Optics for Thin and Lightweight Virtual Reality
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