Seeing is believing: How can we take AR and VR to the next level?

virtual reality headset
Image credit: Depositphotos

By John Kennedy

In 2018, $2.8 billion of venture capital money was raised by virtual reality and augmented reality technology-related start-ups globally according to Greenlight Insights. Imagine if investor pitches had revealed that VR is actually uncomfortable for the 65 percent of the global population who wear glasses? Or that eye strain and nausea in VR remain unresolved issues that are putting people off from trying the experience more than once? What if investors knew that AR still can’t place virtual and real objects together in a realistic way or that virtual content can’t comfortably be placed within arm reach of the user?

That said, all of these issues are solvable. We just need to pay more attention to the optical interface—the interplay between our eyes and the screen. If we are to advance the AR and VR industries, it is absolutely critical that OEMs address these issues, because until they are solved, AR and VR will struggle in the following areas:

  • Creating all-day wearable devices
  • Bringing virtual content comfortably within one meter of the user
  • Reaching the widest possible market by creating a better experience for glasses wearers
  • In AR, accurately placing virtual objects in real space

Creating all-day wearable devices

While the vergence accommodation conflict (VAC) may be a relatively unknown term, anyone who has worn a headset for any length of time will recognize the effects that range from eye fatigue to full-blown nausea.

Right now, the leading VR HMD makers recommend taking a 10-15-minute break every 30 minutes, even if users don’t think they need it. If users can’t spend a significant amount of time in VR or AR, these technologies will be limited as serious tools for enterprise applications. If we can solve this issue, it will enable us to create a device that is comfortable enough to be used all day, giving the industry a greater monetization opportunity.

Bringing virtual content comfortably within one meter

VAC is also responsible for one of the defining limitations of VR content today, the “one-meter barrier.” It is particularly uncomfortable to view content in close proximity because of the decoupling of the natural vergence and accommodation responses in our eyes. As objects get closer, our eyes naturally turn inwards to triangulate with the object they are looking at. The natural response to this convergence is to stimulate the lenses in our eyes to change focus.

Today’s headsets decouple this natural response because the lenses in the headset are set at a fixed focal distance. As a result, developers have been forced to restrict engagement outside of arm’s reach. The inability to bring objects closer blocks the true creative potential for consumer and commercial uses.

Grand View Research has projected that the global AR/VR healthcare market will reach $5.1b by 2025, but if we don’t break the “one-meter barrier,” software developers will continue to experience limitations in the applications they can build. They cannot, for example, create a VR training application that allows doctors to comfortably get up close to and inspect virtual patients. Solving the “one-meter barrier” for enterprise use would not just help build the VR ecosystems, but may also advance crucial sectors like healthcare.

Reaching a broader market by creating a better experience for glass wearers

eye glasses
Image credit: Depositphotos

Having a headset that can be personalized to your prescription as a true “one product fits all” solution is vital to opening up a mass market for the VR industry. If you are part of the 65 percent of the world’s population who wear glasses, you know first hand – if you’ve used VR that is – that they don’t work well with VR headsets for a number of reasons.

It’s uncomfortable, larger frames may not fit into headsets at all, and additional space must be left for glasses to prevent lens scratching, which makes the headset bulkier for everyone. For some users, the increased distance between the eye and the lens in the headset also results in a reduced field of view.

VR headset manufacturers have tried several solutions to develop a product that can be worn by everyone. Unfortunately, most of these solutions make it difficult to share VR experiences with others. There is also a particular problem for enterprise applications and exhibitions where headsets need to be easily shared by a large number of users.

Using adaptive optics could allow VR manufacturers to design a product that is capable of correcting for personal prescription, making both personalization and shareability possible. Adjusting the need for individual prescriptions removes the need for glasses allowing headsets to appeal to a much larger market segment.

Accurately placing AR virtual objects in real space

Augmented reality promises to radically transform the way we live and work, but it will struggle to realize its potential unless fundamental performance and usability issues are addressed. Currently, all AR experiences suffer from VAC (as explained earlier) but they also suffer from focal rivalry.

Focal rivalry manifests itself when you want to integrate real and virtual content believably together. Currently, you can focus on one or the other, but not both. This affects both believability and accuracy. A recent study conducted by the University of Pisa suggests that AR assisted high-precision manual tasks may not be feasible with the current AR headsets because of focal rivalry. Meanwhile, Microsoft advises that HoloLens content developers should attempt to structure content scenes to encourage users to interact with objects one meter or farther away from the content.

According to a recent report from Greenlight Insights, solving these two fundamental optical issues would unlock an additional $10bn in spending on enterprise AR applications by 2026. The inability to meaningfully, seamlessly and accurately engage with virtually rendered content is holding AR back. At a consumer level, it makes AR feel artificial, when it is used for precision tasks, such as surgery or engineering, it will limit the usefulness of the technology.

The optical interface holds the key to genuine immersion

There are 23 visual cues that make up our natural perception of 3D space in the real world. For VR and AR to deliver a fully immersive and realistic experience, we need to fully engage with all of them. Eighteen of these can be dealt with by upgrading software and hardware, but dynamic optical systems hold the key to the remaining five.  When all visual cues are engaged, we can deliver truly immersive and believable experiences – that includes bringing content comfortably into close proximity.

Dynamic lens systems can also help engage our natural visual cues and address focal rivalry by allowing virtual content to be accurately and convincingly placed in the real world. The report from Greenlight Insights reviews all the key dynamic focus solution technologies currently in development, comparing their relative performance and likely time to market. A detailed comparison concludes that dynamic lens systems that can change the focal planes offer the best combination of addressing all the key issues that prevent AR from reaching its market potential.

For the VR industry to access the widest possible market, it also needs to create a comfortable experience for glasses wearers. To achieve this, it will require the use of a technology capable of two seemingly incompatible functions: the ability to personalize the optics of the headset to the individual’s prescription, and the ability to alter the optics of the headset to allow shareability at both the consumer and enterprise level.

Future headsets will need dynamic optical systems

The focus on upgrading software and computer hardware, though important, has resulted in the optical interface being an under-represented area of innovation. Yet as more studies and reports are published, OEM’s are continually growing their understanding of the importance of such technology. It is encouraging to see that leading manufacturers like Oculus, are trialing electronic varifocal lenses already.

In the future, we anticipate that all but the cheapest of headsets will have some form of a dynamic focal system built into them. By solving issues like VAC, focal rivalry and being able to adapt to individual prescriptions we would elevate the user experience of immersive devices – making them both comfortable enough for all-day use and also increase their usefulness in enterprise scenarios.

john kennedy CEO of AdLensJohn Kennedy is CEO of Adlens, the company pioneering the development of lenses that change focus like the human eye-enhancing vision in AR/XR, VR, and eyewear. An engineer by training, John has built his experience in technology and fast-growth consumer businesses.

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