Optics for Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality 2022-2032: Technologies, Players and Markets

AR/MR combiners including diffractive (surface relief/holographic) and reflective (geometric) waveguides, birdbath and freespace combiners and more. Lenses for VR including pancake and geometric phase lenses, auxiliary lenses for waveguides and more.

By guest author Sam Dale from IDTechex.co

Virtual reality (VR) replaces the real environment with the virtual, whereas augmented reality (AR) overlays content on top of the real world and virtual content interacts with the real in mixed reality (MR). VR has found its place as a training aid, an enabler of telepresence and as a tool for design or visualization – not to mention as the future of gaming. The use of AR/MR products for guiding workers from afar, keeping operating plans in front of surgeons’ eyes and replacing the smartphone for content consumption is steadily growing. In the future, these technologies are promised to revolutionize the way we work and communicate.

However, the specialised optics required by AR/MR headsets have so far proved to be one of the industry’s major stumbling blocks. In VR headsets, there is growing usage of new, unconventional lens types to solve the deficiencies of the Fresnel lens-based architectures that have dominated until now. For AR/MR, an entire industry of specialized, often fabless, optics firms has sprung up, offering a diverse range of competing technologies to headset manufacturers that are just as active in this space.

The report primarily covers optical combiners and waveguides for AR/MR and lenses for VR, with additional focus placed on ancillary lenses for waveguides and the specialized optical materials industry supporting these technologies. Key themes across all technologies including the maximization of field of view and eyebox, solving the vergence-accommodation conflict, and efforts to improve colour rendition are discussed and compared. Big Tech’s entry to the metaverse, the activities of OEMs, the demands of end users and other wider market forces are highlighted. The technologies likely to ultimately dominate the market are identified with extensive justification, providing a clear sense of future industry development.

For most VR users, the currently dominant Fresnel lenses used between the display and the eye to magnify images and bring them into comfortable focus are “good enough”. However, in 2022, Fresnel lenses appear to have little scope for further technological development. These lightweight, low-cost optics, typically molded or embossed in plastic allow relatively compact headsets but have deficiencies in terms of ring artifacts, color contrast and more.

Although more advanced hybrid and multi-element Fresnel lens designs help to increase image quality, competing technologies entering the market solve many of the problems inherent to these optics whilst adding functionality and making headsets smaller. The first wave of new designs focuses on compactness – later iterations will solve the vergence-accommodation conflict.

Polarisation-based pancake lenses saw their first entry into Western headset markets in 2021 with HTC’s Vive Flow, with further releases from Shiftall/Panasonic and possibly Meta expected in 2022. These lenses promise more compact designs by folding the optical path, allow dioptric correction and are devoid of Fresnel artifacts but offer tough development challenges, with lower optical efficiency and preventing double images through material development being key amongst these. Further emerging compact optical designs, such as Lynx/Limbak’s catadioptric freeform prism lenses, also promise to make a splash in 2022.

Geometric phase lens arrays, which are dynamically focus-tunable for maximum immersion, may offer the final say in VR optics, yet remain years from deployment. Based on holography or metasurfaces, these have seen interest and patent activity from major players including Meta, Valve and. Clearly, this once-static field has transformed into a hotbed for innovation.

Comprehensive analysis and market forecasts

IDTechEx has been covering the AR/VR industry since 2015, staying close to the technical and market developments, interviewing key players worldwide, attending numerous conferences and delivering multiple consulting projects.

Our report assesses the AR/VR optics market in considerable detail, evaluating the different technologies, potential adoption barriers, and their applicability to different application areas. The report includes multiple company profiles based on interviews with major players across the different technologies. We also develop granular 10-year market forecasts for each technology, along with material forecasts for supplying the industry.

Analyst access from IDTechEx

In AR/MR headset development the goal is a light and comfortable device that you can wear all day, switching in and out of AR/MR whilst enabling natural interactions between the wearer and others present both physically and virtually. For this to happen, images must be overlaid onto the user’s vision using optical combiners, raising a wide range of difficulties for the engineer.

In 2022, a consensus is emerging that optical waveguides are the way forward to unobtrusive and immersive AR/MR. Surface relief diffractive waveguides, as used in the HoloLens and Magic Leap devices, have made early strides. Manufactured via processes inherited from the silicon industry, these enable relatively slim and compact devices but suffer from high costs, image quality issues and extremely poor efficiency. Holographic diffractive waveguides and reflective (also known as geometric) waveguides offer alternatives which promise to revolutionise manufacturability and redefine image quality respectively but have yet to gain significant traction.

A range of further combiner technologies, particularly “birdbath” and freespace holographic combiners, also offer convincing candidates for AR/MR headset designers, particularly where cost or compactness, respectively, are top priority. Different technologies fit different headset types – to this end, the AR/MR headset market is segmented into wide vs. narrow field of view for forecasting, with the likely winning technologies for both categories highlighted. Special attention is paid to the benchmarking and development potential of combiners. Further discussion is devoted to the status of ancillary lenses for waveguides, which enable correction of eyewear prescriptions, solving the vergence-accommodation conflict and more.

Extended reality optics industry to grow at 24 % CAGR to 2032.

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