Knowing what Apple's Research Team is up to for Next-Gen VR/AR Devices, Facebook Reveals their Next-Gen Glasses with Holographic Lenses
Last month Patently Apple posted a report titled "Facebook is determined to stay ahead of Apple on HMDs and Win the Race on being first with Smartglasses to replace Smartphones." With Facebook remaining at the forefront of the next-wave of computers in the form of smartglasses and HMDs, Apple wanted the news out about what their team was developing on this front. Nine days later we posted a new report titled "Apple's Secretive Technology Development Group is working on both AR Glasses and an Advanced HMD with a Stunning Display."
The report covered two key AR/VR Apple products in development. One of the products was dubbed the N421 project which focused on a lightweight pair of glasses using AR only that would allow Apple's messages and Map apps to be seen in an augmented way. The project is likely a little more advanced than Alphabet's recently acquired Focals from North because Apple will be offering more features as you'll see in Apple's modular glasses patent images.
The report further revealed that Apple's headset and glasses team, led by Mike Rockwell, was also working on a second more advanced headset that would revolutionize Head Mounted Display systems and offer breakthrough features far beyond Facebook's Oculus line of headsets. The project was dubbed the N301 project. It was designed to be the best of both VR and AR by delivering an all-encompassing digital experience for gaming and consuming content like movies.
It was designed to feature ultra-high-resolution screens that would make it almost impossible for a user to differentiate the virtual world from the real one. A cinematic speaker system would have also made the experience even more realistic, according to those who had tested the prototypes.
To deliver this next-generation experience, Rockwell’s team had developed and planned to sell a stationary hub. In prototype form, the hub reportedly resembled a small Mac that would connect to the headset wirelessly. In other words Apple had developed a super-advanced VR gaming console that had the power to have crushed Microsoft's Xbox X Series and Sony's PS5.
When Rockwell presented the N301 to Apple executives, Jony Ive was still in the drivers seat regarding hardware and he gave the project a thumbs down. The question now becomes: with Jony Ive having retired, could Apple's project N301 be resurrected?
Gamers around the world are fully familiar with the use of gaming consoles. So Jony Ive's objection appeared to be an odd decision. Of course we were never told what the price for this so-called gaming hub would be. If it rang in at the price of a Mac, say $1800 to $3500 range, then we'd understand the objection made by Ive. But what if it was only $999. Would Apple fans pay that for a super-advanced VR gaming console? I think they would. For now however, we're in the dark on that point and the N301 project is reportedly off the table.
Days after the second report, Patently Apple broke the news that Apple had filed for a patent related to modular smartglasses that would contain a great number of sensors and features built in the arms of the glasses frame as illustrated below.
It's a model that could also make slipping in prescription glasses a breeze for a retailer like LensCrafters or the like. You could review our full report titled "Apple Patent illustrates Future Smartglasses Offering a Modular Design allowing users to exchange parts for Different Functionality" here for more details.
With Apple's news on future headsets stealing the buzz from Facebook, it appears that they wanted the regain the upper hand over Apple. To do that, they revealed a new headset design that they're working on in the form of sunglasses, as presented below.
Although the glasses are seen to be fairly thin compared to an Oculus headset, they claim that they deliver quite the visual punch as you'll see in the brief demo video below.
The design is a proof-of-concept research device that only uses flat films as optics to achieve a display thickness of less than 9 mm while supporting a field of view comparable to today’s consumer VR products.
The work demonstrates the promise of better visual performance, as well: Laser illumination is used to deliver a much wider gamut of colors to VR displays, and progress is being made toward scaling resolution to the limit of human vision. The next step is to advance the displays to offer color as noted further below.
Facebook's research team noted that today’s VR displays have three primary components: a source of light (e.g., LEDs), a display panel that brightens or dims the light to form an image (e.g., an LCD panel), and a viewing optic that focuses the image far enough away so that the viewer’s eyes can see it (e.g., a plastic lens).
As the first two components can readily be formed into thin and flat modules, most of the weight and volume go into the viewing optics. To significantly reduce the overall size and weight of VR displays, the Facebook team combined two techniques: holographic optics and polarization-based optical folding. The image below illustrates the dramatic advantage of using holographic optics over traditional means.
Most VR displays share a common viewing optic: a simple refractive lens composed of a thick, curved piece or glass or plastic. The Facebook team proposed replacing this bulky element with holographic optics. The result was a dramatic reduction in thickness and weight: The holographic optic bends light like a lens but looks like a thin, transparent sticker.
While it's still in Facebook's lab, I found it interesting that they wanted to share this information with the public only after the news of what Apple's Research team was up to.
Is Facebook wanting to stay hungry and ahead of Apple on this emerging technological front? Are they willing to fight Apple on a PR playing field as well? Yes, apparently on both counts. However, that could all change in the blink of an eye if Apple ever decided to unleash their N301 beast first to market.
Stay tuned as the race to deliver a powerful next-gen VR/AR Headset in a smaller form factor is only in the early stages.