Augmented reality (AR) headsets have long tantalized us with a vision of seamlessly blending digital content into our physical surroundings. But shortcomings of current display technologies have prevented the magical AR future from becoming an everyday reality. Swiss startup CREAL is poised to change that in 2024 with the launch of its innovative light field micro display for AR glasses.
Light field is a completely different approach to AR displays that provides the full depth cues we see in the real world. The difference with standard stereoscopic 3D is immediately apparent. Existing AR headsets show flat images to each eye, relying on the brain to fuse them into a simulated sense of depth. But this falls apart for nearby objects, causing eye strain and headaches as users struggle to focus on virtual objects that lack depth in reality.
Light field AR headsets like those utilizing CREAL’s technology will display stunningly lifelike 3D digital content at any distance. This eliminates vergence-accommodation conflict and enables prolonged, comfortable AR use cases from work to entertainment. The visual realism across the full depth range could finally unleash immersive applications in design, medicine, tourism and more.
So why has effective light field AR taken so long? CREAL has invested six years overcoming daunting technical obstacles to develop a high-performance micro display paired with advanced imaging software. The resulting images are free from distortion and artifacts that plagued previous attempts at near-eye light field. And CREAL’s breakthroughs have yielded technology compact and efficient enough for all-day wearable AR glasses.
The key is a photonic integrated circuit that uses over 100 million nanostructures to shape light into thousands of pixel beams directed precisely into each eye. This reconstructs a digital light field that accurately mimics the real one. CREAL’s micro displays can project stereoscopic 3D content with continuous focus and parallax from 30 centimeters to infinity.
CREAL’s cinematic 3D visuals at any distance combined with lightweight, ergonomic eyewear could finally propel AR into the mainstream. The possibilities span entertainment, work, education, healthcare and more. AR may transform everything from how we shop, learn, design and create to how doctors perform surgery or workers maintain equipment. Hands-free AR wearables promise to integrate digital connectivity into our lives in a natural, transparent way.
Another advantage is the see-through display technology. Rather than bulky waveguides, CREAL uses a nano-structured holographic film laminated onto a regular eyeglass lens. The micro display projects light field pixels through this film combiner and into the eyes. The result is fashionable AR glasses with no compromises in image quality or computing demands.
CREAL was founded near the technology hub of Lausanne, Switzerland in 2017 by a team from Intel, Magic Leap, CERN and the Swiss university EPFL. The 30-person startup has raised $18 million so far, and says it is already working with top AR device makers to integrate its technology. It plans for the first products to launch in 2024.
The company promises several key advantages of its light field approach over other AR display technologies. It expects the nanostructured holographic combiner to be up to 50 times more optically efficient than waveguides, enabling lightweight batteries and extended use times. And it says the micro displays will be highly manufacturable using existing cost-optimized semiconductor processes.
If CREAL can fulfill its vision, the breakthroughs could rapidly accelerate AR headset adoption. Apple, Meta, Microsoft and others have invested heavily in an AR future but been hampered by display limitations. Most existing devices are still far too bulky, heavy, awkward or limited for prolonged everyday use. But with compact, comfortable AR glasses providing seamless 3D digital content, people may finally incorporate augmented reality into their routines and environments.
For the AR industry, hopes have dimmed after years of sky-high expectations and disappointing initial products. But CREAL’s imminent light field technology could be the tipping point that finally brings augmented reality into maturity. If the company succeeds in launching with leading AR hardware partners next year, consumers may see the first cohort of AR wearables capable of serving as feature-packed computing platforms for work and play.
CREAL must still deliver on its promises and overcome the manufacturing scaling challenges faced by any hardware startup. But with an impressive technical team and key patents secured, the company is positioned to unlock the full potential of augmented reality. Come 2024, CREAL may hold the key to AR finally fulfilling its destiny as the next paradigm shift in computing interfaces. By blending the digital and physical, AR aims to enhance our productivity and creativity without compromising human connection and awareness. The technology landscape awaits with bated breath.