We were very impressed with the Avegant Glyph. A (non-VR) HMD that uses impressive retinal projection technology to produce an image that causes no eye-strain, no chicken wire effect and appears amazingly sharp despite the relatively low resolution.
Not content to create its own product niche, Avegant has revealed a totally new product that goes head-to-head with that (very much a prototype) marvel the Hololens. It’s called the Avegant Light Field and it’s got a lot of people very excited.
Mixed Reality Rules?
As much as we love VR here on Virtual Reality Society, it’s hard to argue with the fact that AR and MR will probably be a much more widespread technology in the long run. While immersive VR is great for a lot of in-home or professional applications, it’s not that suitable for mobile or work environments where you need spatial awareness.
Mixed reality combines a range of spatial sensors and special projection technology to create a convincing illusion that virtual and real objects share the same space. So a virtual piece of art could appear to be hanging on a very real wall.
That more complicated than it may sound and requires some way for the software to map and understand the space you’re in. When it works, it’s an amazing experience and clearly different from basic AR applications such as Pokemon GO which clumsily projects stuff over whatever’s on the screen.
The really impressive trick is something called “occlusion” where a virtual object can appear to move behind real objects in the room. New technology also allows projected objects to match the real lighting conditions in the room. It’s all very, very impressive.
The Hololens from Microsoft is a product that does this sort of thing in a HMD form-factor, but it does have some serious limits.
A “Hollow” Experience?
Mixed Reality tech has two major drawbacks: field of view and focus. Compared to a typical mobile HMD which has a field of view between 90 degrees and 110 degrees the field of view on the Hololens is tiny. This is however a key area that Microsoft is working on. (Here is a video from The Verge illustrating this)
The second problem has to do with focus. When you mix light from the real world with that projected on a 2D digital display the digital stuff won’t look like it’s merged with the real objects.
This is where the concept of a “light field” display comes in, where the same image is present at multiple focal depths. This comes with a hefty tradeoff in resolution with even the best current microdisplays, which are only 1080p. While we don’t know for sure what the resolution per eye is for the Hololens, some have speculated that it’s 500×500 pixels at best for each eye.
That is, if the technology in the Hololens even works the way that people think it does. After all, you can’t buy one and Microsoft has been pretty tight-lipped about the technical details.
Avegant Takes the Gloves Off
The Avegant Light Field, as the name suggests, explicitly uses light field technology to create the illusion of mixed reality. If you go to the product’s site you’ll find a number of links to independent account of the experience.
Avegant cleverly invited journalists from some of the bigger tech outlets to try the device and then report what they saw. This is smart because there’s no real way to convey the technology with screenshots or videos.
From the various accounts we’ve seen the first and most important thing to not is that the Avegant solution has a much wider field of view than the Hololens. It seems to be around the 100-degree mark, which matches up to many VR HMDs. It should be noted that this is unconfirmed.
Journalists who have tried it also say that they can freely focus throughout the light field on any object seamlessly. Even more impressive, the demo shown to these individuals clearly had great occlusion. For example, virtual fish would swim around office furniture.
Although this is a tightly-controlled demo and we don’t know how much is real-time and not pre-baked, it seems clear that Avegant have leapfrogged what Microsoft has shown us so far.
However, this is not the first time we’ve seen a promise of what Avegant has delivered. Although they keep a low profile, we still have to see the hardware and software from Magic Leap. Their mockups and demos also show occlusion and free focus with (apparently) light field tech not too far from Avegant’s. The difference is that Avegant has clearly solved the hardware issue, something that Magic Leap has said they are still working on.
Let the Games Begin
This reveal by Avegant of a working prototype that seems to live up to the promise of the Hololens, except right now. Which means the pressure is both on Microsoft and quieter players such as Magic Leap to push ahead with their schedules or, in case this is better than what they have under wraps, quickly scramble to reinvent their product.
There’s still the issue of immediate hype as well and details still need to come to light. For example, Techcrunch says the field of view isn’t much better than Hololens, whilst Engadget says it’s enormous.
Without first-hand experience it’s hard to say who is right, but one thing we can’t doubt is that the game is on and realistic mixed reality hardware could be heading towards the hands of consumers sooner than we think.